Like any kid, I had heroes. I guess mine were a little grittier than the usual collection of sports figures and cowboy stars. Charlie Lawson wore a red Allis Chalmers baseball cap and ran lines below Three Springs Bluff. Cab Jarnigan rolled his own cigarettes and once caught a hundred-pound paddlefish. Gus Isom lived up on the hill behind my dad’s dock and built his own boats. All my heroes were commercial fishermen.
When I first learned it was possible to make a living catching fish I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. Imagine a job where one could spend every day in a boat, on the water, FISHING! I idolized the commercial guys, watched every move they made, and longed to someday take a place beside them on the water. When I was old enough, Gus Isom took me under his wing and taught me how to run trotlines for catfish. A year later I was ready to try it on my own. I’ll never forget the day the mailman delivered a package labeled “Official Business – Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency.” My hands were shaking so bad I could hardly rip open the padded manila envelope, and I strutted around like a banty rooster when I saw my name engraved on the steel trotline tags. I could now join my heroes. It was the greatest accomplishment of my sixteen-year-old life.
Watermen they call them in Maryland, and there’s no profession more revered. To many, a bright white workboat disappearing into the morning fog defines the Chesapeake Bay. Dozens of books document their simple yet demanding lifestyle. Tourists drool at opportunities to visit places like Smith and Tangier Islands where they can see the gentle fishers hard at work. Museums like the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael’s devote millions of dollars to preserve the equipment they use to harvest the Bay. Watermen are the heroes of the Mid-Atlantic.
Things are changing fast for Chesapeake watermen, and not for the better. Challenges to their lifestyle include poor water-quality, urban sprawl, and drastic declines in the numbers of finfish and shellfish in the Bay. To make matters worse, the public’s perception of watermen is faltering. Pervasive poaching and other illegal activities is casting a dark shadow on what was once seen as a noble profession. The quiet world of oyster tongs, hooks-and-line, and hand-wired crab pots is giving way to a toxic environment of poaching, illegal harvest methods, and organized crime. Things are bad, and getting worse.
In the coldest months of winter, a small minority of Chesapeake watermen turn to gill netting. If you follow this website you know by now that more and more striped bass are wintering over in the Bay. In January and February they sluggishly hold in the deep holes around and just inside the mouths of tributary rivers. Since most recreational anglers don’t fish for rockfish in cold weather, we don’t follow their behavior too much. The netters do. One gill net set in prime winter habitat can catch tons – that’s right, TONS – of striped bass.
Fish can’t survive long in a gill net. Thousands of fish die and go to waste when an anchored gill net is left untended for too long. Recognizing the problem, laws were passed in 1985 to require that all nets float and be constantly tended by their owners. Unfortunately, those laws are routinely ignored. Every winter the Natural Resources Police (NRP) recover miles – that’s right, MILES – of illegally anchored nets. Sadly, it’s been going on for decades. (Click this link to read more.) Since it’s a lot easier to set and leave a net than to stay out all day tending one, poachers sneak out under the cover of darkness. It’s worth the risk because the penalties for poaching are minor, and one net can harvest thousands of dollars worth of fish.
Due to better media coverage – especially by the Baltimore Sun -there’s been a lot of public outcry against illegal nets this year. When the first reports started coming in, members of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA Maryland) hit the docks with cameras in hand to make sure the tons of illegally harvested fish were photographed. The photos and videos went viral on the internet and were picked up by major news organizations all over the country. Local interest groups offered a reward of twenty thousand dollars for anyone with information leading to the arrests of those responsible. You’d think with all that publicity the poachers would’ve hunkered down.
This week, more miles of freshly set nets were discovered containing many thousands more pounds of illegal rockfish bringing the overall total of poached fish to more than ten tons – that’s, right TEN TONS. The problem is rampant and completely out of control. The already understaffed Natural Resource Police are outmanned and under-gunned. NRP officers have publicly admitted that they are only scratching the surface in getting rid of illegal nets. Since all the fish have to be transported and sold (usually out of state) there’s irrefutable evidence of organized crime. The Chesapeake Bay is under siege.
Maryland has to look at the usefulness of nets in the Bay. In respect to their impact on fisheries management, nets are weapons of mass destruction. One illegal net can harvest the equivalent of an entire monthly commercial quota. The illegal activity has rendered Maryland’s annual commercial management strategy completely useless. Many are calling for an end to netting in the Bay. Unfortunately, when big money is involved some of it inevitably influences politicians and lawmakers. Concerned fishermen tried to ban winter gill netting as far back as 1953, but were soundly defeated by well-organized commercial interests. (Read about it here on pages 178 and 179.) Are the fish better off with our current group of lawmakers? Why continue such a destructive fishing practice in the Chesapeake Bay?
On the way to a fishing trip yesterday I drove over the Choptank River near Cambridge and looked upstream though the morning fog to see a half-dozen open workboats hand-tonging oysters. The scene could have come right out of the 19th century. What a magnificent site to see these hard-working watermen plying their generations-old trade on a cold winter morning. What a stark contrast to the evil environment of Chesapeake netting. I’m sure the hard-working men and women on those boats have heard of the poaching and organized crime that’s going on around them. They may also know that the illegal activity is sure to affect them as public opinion turns more sharply against their way of life. It isn’t fair to lump all watermen in the same category, but it’s inevitable unless our lawmakers step in. These heroes of the Chesapeake deserve better. Can Maryland step up and rid the Bay of the illegal activity brought on by a gill net season? Where are the heroes?
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