Watermen: the real story

Most who work the Chesapeake Bay are law abiding and hard working, but the bad apples seem to get all the attention

October 26, 2011|By Gibby Dean

As president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association, I have become increasingly angered and frustrated by the news media normally leaving the general public with such a negative impression of the watermen community. Over the past year, there have been numerous stories involving illegal fishing activities, both in print and as specials on local TV. Unfortunately, some of the facts are true — through at times the presentation is misleading — and we as an industry are certainly not proud of them. Regrettably, in some cases, the reported facts have even been exaggerated, the culprits assumed and the overall presentation biased.

Such reports only tell a small part of the story of our Chesapeake Bay watermen. The untold version is the fact that the overwhelming majority of all commercial fishermen do not condone any form of illegal fishing activity. I will be the first to admit that we do share some of the same problems as other industries, communities and professions regrading violations of the law, but please do not judge us as a group because of the actions of a few. For the most part, we are family men and women who take pride in our occupation, honor its tradition and cherish our heritage. Our commercial fishermen still embrace traditional values of religions and hard work and are patriots. We want our children to be brought up knowing that their parents were part of an honorable profession and to be proud of what they did for a living and not to be depicted as anything less.

Watermen are at the forefront in the fight against illegal fishing activity. Our industry has worked side by side with the Department of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Police to implement various regulations to limit the opportunity to participate in illegal fishing activities without penalizing the honest waterman. To do so without placing unnecessary burdens on the overall industry will continue to be a challenge.

Our industry has also supported increased fines and penalties for such violations as a deterrent. Some violations now result in the immediate suspension or revocation of licenses. We have requested repeatedly that our state legislators find the additional funds to support the Natural Resource Police. We have advocated more police presence on the bay and its tributaries to prevent violations from occurring, for the same reasons inland police forces utilize marked patrol vehicles in our towns, streets and highways. We feel that the vast majority of these offenses could be prevented with more police presence. We understand that our Natural Resource Police are underfunded and that their manpower is half of what it used to be. It should be unacceptable to the citizens of Maryland to expect these devoted men and women to protect such a valuable asset on such a limited budget.

We work and cooperate with the DNR, but we don't always agree with its methods. No one has advocated putting Breathalizer machines in all Maryland vehicles because of the number of DWI arrests made in the state. So why is the DNR trying to implement a pilot program to put GPS tracking devices on all commercial fishing boats because of several poaching arrests? No one is advocating reducing the speed limits on Maryland highways because of the number of citations issued for speeding. Then why does the DNR always try to implement additional regulations that affect the entire industry, because of the illegal actions of a few?

Last year's anchor net incident resulted in the entire fishery being closed for an extended period; today, they still do not know for sure who did it. There will probably be several new regulations imposed this year on our gill net fishery as a result. This is just another example where the entire fishing industry is burdened with additional regulations because of the actions of few.

Our watermen care as much or more about the health of the Chesapeake Bay as anyone else. Sure, part of that concern is based on economic reasons, but more importantly, we want to be able to pass our tradition, our heritage and our culture along to future generations. In order to do this, we understand that this estuary has to be managed for the benefit of all citizens and not just for a chosen few. The Chesapeake Bay defines the state of Maryland, and we want to ensure all those who use it are responsible for its success.

Journalists can forget how much power they wield and how easily they can sway public opinion by the way they present a story. I only ask that they be considerate of all watermen when reporting on our industry and communities, as they would be for the other professions or groups they cover.

Why aren't there more positive stories about our watermen? Maybe, one day, someone will write an article about how you would be hard-pressed to find another group of individuals who, despite their own differences, will give one another the shirt off their backs, money from their pockets or food from their tables to help someone in need as readily as our Chesapeake Bay commercial fishermen.

These are the reasons why I am proud to be part of, honored to represent and humbled by the friendship of our commercial watermen.

Gibby Dean is president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association. His email is gibbydean@yahoo.com.

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