Volume XI, Issue 17 ~ April 24 - 30, 2003

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Dock of the Bay

On the High Seas, the Coast Guard Rules
Update: You could still be next

Update: This story happened long before 9/11 brought us heightened security alerts and broadened police powers. Since 9/11, the Coast Guard has become part of the massive new Department of Homeland Security. It now patrols the nation’s waters more aggressively, a Coast Guard spokesperson told Bay Weekly this week.

Ask Mike Harris of Rosehaven what a run-in with the Coast Guard can bring you.

Harris’s life changed after June, 1992, when his boat, Compensation, hauled in Maryland’s record rockfish, almost 65 pounds. The catch built his reputation as one of the promising young captains on the Middle Bay.

But by spring of 1993, his charter business hung in limbo and so did his reputation, thanks to Coast Guard tactics and his own carelessness.

His chilling tale began on an afternoon in September, 1992, with Harris and his party loading up on spot, flounder and trout. They were anchored near Sharp’s Island Lighthouse, a popular fishing grounds at the mouth of the Choptank River.

Harris, 45, noticed a Coast Guard vessel weaving through fishing boats. He knew his horn was broken and that his boat, a 37-foot classic Baybuilt, had a rough edge or two. But he had no clue to what was about to unfold.

The 50-foot Coast Guard vessel is swiftly upon them. Demands pierce the air from a bullhorn. Lt. Randall Barnabee and armed men board. They try to drop a police dog down to Harris’ deck but can’t get the job done in the light chop.

Compensation is escorted to port with two Coast Guard officers on board, watching Harris. His charter trip is terminated. The Coast Guard says they’ve found safety violations: Some of the life jackets don’t have reflecting tape on the inside as well as on the outside.

Back at his slip at Rod ’n’ Reel dock at Chesapeake Beach, they refuse to let his party off the boat. The dog, led on to Compensation, sniffs not only the boat but also Harris’s customers, who include a physician and two children. A crowd has formed to watch.

“It was not good for business, to say the least,” said Harris. He had figured out by now that this was a drug bust.

The dog found no drugs; neither did the Coast Guard. But the boarding party found other fault. They slapped Harris with a slew of charges including no working horn and a faulty toilet that flushed directly into the Bay.

Harris’s ordeal wasn’t over. During a hearing, Coast Guard Lt. Barnabee admitted on the stand that, based on an informant’s tip, Harris was under surveillance for drugs.

News accounts carried this damaging and unproved allegation along with testimony that Harris hadn’t noted a DWI charge on his application for a new captain’s license. Suddenly, Harris was threatened not only with losing that license but also with the stigma of being a drug user or trafficker.

“It’s pretty frightening to think that if somebody doesn’t like you, they can just call the Coast Guard and something like this can happen,” said Stephen Boynton, of Vienna, Va., Harris’s lawyer.

Harris submitted to a urine test by the Coast Guard after he was boarded. He was clean.

Barnabee insisted that Harris’s case was handled properly as part of a crack-down on charter captains up and down the Bay. In the early ’90s, the Coast Guard began elaborate boardings aiming at what Barnabee described as unregulated, uninspected ‘six-packs,’ boats taking out up to six in a party.

“I had what appeared to be credible evidence that he has been a user of cocaine,” said Barnabee.

Harris saw himself as a victim several times over. He wished the Coast Guard would have done more checking before embarrassing him and branding him a druggie. He believed the Coast Guard loaded charges on him to save face.

“The real truth is that this was a drug bust gone bad,” Harris asserted. “How much is all this going to cost me in the long run because of people who don’t want to go out with me anymore?”

Harris’s case is a lesson to fellow boaters. In maritime law, you may have to contend with rumor and hearsay more dangerous than any Bay squall. When you shove off, you leave many of your rights on the dock.

Consider Barnabee’s warning: “The Coast Guard has jurisdiction to board anybody anywhere. We can have a reason. Or we can have no reason.”

Update: Captain Mike Harris continues to fish out of Rod ‘n’ Reel on Compensation. Back in port after his third day of fishing in the ’03 rockfish season, Harris described the saga as long, drawn-out and ugly.” He says he spent three years contesting the charges “before they went away.” Did he win in the end? “I can’t say that,” he said, “when it cost me a lot of money.”

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Chasing the Blue Monster
Update: Make that rock monster

How’s this for a spring dream? You’re trolling in the Bay, your first time out in a season full of hope, and WHAM … ZINGGGGGG — the rod bends like a horseshoe, the line smokes toward the horizon and your heart starts hopping even in bed. Gotta be snagged.

Wait; something’s back there. Something mighty, pullin’ like a tugboat. Must be a ray. No, suddenly — it breaks water and, oh my God, it’s huge … a monster bluefish.

Fast forward in your dream. You’re on a dock and they’re clapping. Somebody hands you a check as big as that bluefish. With five zeroes. You must have won the Fisherman’s Lottery.

This may not be dreamland if you tie into that whopper during the 10th annual bluefish tournament …

Update: Keep on dreaming. At the 20th annual Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen’s Association Chesapeake Bay Tournament May 16-18, 2003, rockfish, now recovered, replace bluefish and are the fish of choice with some 200 cash prizes to be won. First prize for rockfish is a guaranteed $15,000, but with additional skill-level fees and bonuses, last year’s winner got $35,000. Still standing is a $100,000 grand prize for bluefish, but to claim it you’ll have to catch — and authenticate — the world’s record bluefish.

It’ll cost you $175.00 per boat to try for big fish and big money. Find out how at www.mssa.net.

Besides holding tournaments, the sportfishermen’s association lobbies for conservation bills and advises sensitive treatment of the Bay.

“If we don’t have clean water for those fish to swim in, we’re not going to have fish for our future,” executive director Rich Novotny warns.

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Whale of a Change in the Chesapeake?
If you can’t see a whale, a dolphin may do

Two Nicks and No Fin showed up, as did Rabbit, known for some awesome acrobatics. But the real celebrity was Tattertail, whose knobby young head already adorns a postcard in New Jersey.

They’re part of a baker’s dozen of baby humpback whales who spent the first months of 1993 capering about at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. That’s baby, as in 30 feet long. Adults get up to 50 feet and can weigh 40 tons.

Update: In recent years, adult humpback whales have been spotted in Chesapeake Bay. Back in 1993, only baby humpback were spotted. Why either age comes, we still don’t know.

The whales showed for the first time in the winter of 1991, and nobody knows for sure why. But the pod has grown ever since, and people in the Southern Chesapeake Bay region sure do enjoy its visits.

Whales occasionally migrate far up the Bay. A 45-footer, probably a humpback, was spotted off Rock Hall above the Bay Bridge in the fall of 1991. But the return by this prize pod and the sighting of two even-bigger fin whales this year suggests that something’s happening.

The humpbacks are known to head down to the Caribbean from their haunts in the waters off New England.

Maybe the draw is the availability of fish and plankton at the mouth of the Bay. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe they got tired of Jamaican jerk sauce.

Update: One certain reason the whales come to Chesapeake Bay is to feed before heading to the Carribean to breed. It’s no different from any traveler stopping off for a bite to eat before continuing the journey.

“There are dozens of factors, including the natural cycles of fish. But we really don’t know,” said Mark Swingle, of the Virginia Marine Science Museum.

Update: The Virginia Marine Science Museum has turned the phenomenon into a seasonal business. Whale-watching trips go out during the winter, although they do not guarantee that whales will show themselves to eager on-lookers.

Starting in May, leaping dolphins come into the Chesapeake — often far up the Bay — by the thousands.

In that season, the Virginia Marine Science Museum switches to dolphin-watching tours.

Update: Spring, summer and fall are the seasons for dolphin watching. Weekend trips run April 25 to June 7. Daily trips run June 14 to September 1: 757/437-boat.

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On the Governor’s Desk 10 Years Ago
From Early New Bay Times’ feature Poli-Talk

Slot-machine gambling didn’t make it through the 2003 General Assembly, but in 1993, cruise-ship gambling was more successful. The legislature passed a bill allowing casino gambling aboard cruise ships plying Chesapeake Bay. Gov. William Donald Schaefer signed it, too — but there’s a catch. You only get to play if you’ve signed up for the cruise. The ship’s got to be underway, and when it goes, you go, too.

If back in ’93, you were planning to cash in on the bungee-jumping craze, you’d have found that Maryland wasn’t the state to leap into the business.

The state legislature passed and Gov. Schaefer signed a bill that “prohibits a person from oprating a commercial bungee-jumping operation.”

Fines were set as high as $2,500, and jail sentences as high as six months.

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Way, Way Downstream …

Pollution does weird stuff. Research in England showed that sewage causes sex changes in fish. That’s right, male trout near sewage pipes start producing hormones, which is equivalent to a man suddenly starting to give milk.

Scientists attributed the change to hormones reaching the water from women taking birth control pills or, perhaps, to a heavy flow of detergents. They weren’t sure which, but they said evidence of sex changes is firm.

They said nothing about the quality of the filets …

In the Florida Everglades, scientists blamed other pollution for killer algae destroying the state’s largest lobster nursery. The algae bloom devastated underwater habitat for 300 square miles, wiping out the sponges that lobsters eat.

“There’s not a sponge left in Everglades National Park. They’re all dead,” lamented a state biologist. As with much pollution, the economic cost won’t be fully felt for years — when people start missing a whole generation of lobsters …

Our Creature Feature — the bizarre case of irradiated snakes — came from the former Soviet Union. Russian scientists reported that patches of earth are so contaminated from the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster that radioactivity was showing up in the venom of snakes.

The scientists pointed to the one silver cloud they could find: Studying these giant glow worms, they learned more about how radioactivity spreads after a nuclear accident.

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Last updated April 24, 2003 @ 2:57am