DNR vs. Outlaw Watermen
After 143 years, it’s time to win this battle
At long last, Maryland’s commercial oyster industry is about to come under control of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Comprehensive recommendations like these are the only way to save that great public natural resource.
That 143-year-old report to the General Assembly of Maryland by Hunter Davidson, commissioner of the State Oyster Police, recommended “enactment of a law restraining and regulating the present thoughtless and improvident industry that takes every oyster wherever found, regardless of season, size or condition.”
The yellow perch run is starting in surges here and there. Most reports are of undersized males but, occasionally, lucky anglers are encountering short runs of the larger fish. The mouth of the North East River is still the hottest destination for garnering a limit, but the mid-Choptank and the Tuckahoe are starting to turn on as well. Pickerel are as numerous as they’ve ever been, with many anglers enjoying the mild winter on the Severn and the Magothy by tangling with these toothy fighters. Main Bay white perch remain missing, at least for this angler. Catch-and-release fishing for rockfish around the Bay Bridge has been very good, with some boats reporting encounters with 50 or more strong-fighting, winter-fat stripers.
Bobwhite quail: thru Feb. 15
The harvest that year was estimated at 10 million bushels.
Also recommended was severely limiting or ending dredging — described as “grinding and crushing a thousand oysters for every one that is taken” — in favor of hand-tonging.
Also called for was expansion of the Oyster Police force, along with enforcement of strict penalties for violating Maryland oyster laws.
Look Where We Are Now
Since that report in 1869, the Chesapeake oyster population has fallen by more than 99 percent. The number of watermen employed in the fishing and processing of oysters has consequently plummeted from an estimate of 10,000 in 1869 to only a few hundred today.
The 2011 commercial harvest of 105,000 bushels brought in a scant $3,000,000 in revenue to about 500 reporting watermen (roughly $6,000 each). The value of that harvest is said to amount to what was spent on programs to increase the oyster population.
The Chesapeake oyster at one time filtered the complete volume of the Bay every two days. Now that function is measured in months. Bay waters that were once clear to the depth of over 20 feet are now algae hued and murky.
Vast shell beds (measured at a total of 373 square miles in 1869) not only provided food to multitudes of people but also nurtured vast populations of fish, otters, rays, whelks, crabs, sea birds and countess smaller denizens of the Bay.
To be fair, commercial over-harvesting is only one primary culprit in the oyster’s demise. Pollution is increasingly significant. The fouling of Bay waters has brought not only decreased oyster regeneration but also increases in oyster diseases such as dermo and MSX.
Perversely, the emergence of the diseases has prompted calls for continued, even increased, commercial harvest, under the argument that the oysters will eventually die from the diseases. Despite the fact that some oysters eventually evolve immunity to these plagues, with natural selection promoting the survival of the fittest.
Oyster sanctuaries have recently increased. Sanctuaries allow fishery scientists to study unfished populations in their natural state. They also encourage the development of disease-resistant oysters.
Or would, except when these safe havens are raided by poachers, sometimes to the point of eradication. Natural Resources Police are hampered in stopping this outlaw behavior, just as they were back in 1869.
The best efforts Maryland has managed over the last 143 years have not protected this critical natural resource.
Here’s the question we have to ask: Is our generation going to be the one that oversees the final devastation of the Chesapeake oyster? Or will we finally take steps more than a century overdue?
Read the 1869 report at http://dnr.maryland.gov/mdconservationhistory/nrp_historical_sources.asp.
Case in Point
Arrested and charged last week for illegally diving for oysters in a restricted area of the Little Choptank River were commercial watermen Bryan R. Grimes, 36, of Chester; Edward E. Grimes, 61, of Stevensville; Christopher L. Marvel, 19, of Grasonville; and a fourth man who fraudulently identified himself.