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.

They didn’t.

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?

Posted Sunday, February 13th, 2011 at 2:38 pm
Filed Under Category: Fishing Reports
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Responses to “Where Are The Heroes?”

  1. Well said, Cap’n. This bold but illegal activity definitely threatens the future of the Chesapeake’s watermen, and it greatly hinders Maryland’s efforts to set a good example of fisheries management for the rest of the Atlantic Coast. Hooray for the hard-working folks at DNR who are trying to straighten out the situation.

  2. Bill M says:

    I’ve been following this subject and I am astonished with the amount of fish being poached in these local waters. I had no idea until the reports surfaced. Where do all of these illegal fish go? Is there risk for accepting poached fish?

    Another education read. Thanks Shawn.

  3. wen says:

    there’s a lot of sincere insight in this piece.It would be hard for anyone not to see the heart that wrote it.
    You and others like you with such a clear voice are the only chance the bay and it’s resources have.When will politicians stops putting their hands in the pockets of those that seek to steal and cheat.
    Maybe what has started to happen in Washington will start to trickle down to the lower levels.
    Thanks for some great insight.

  4. Colin Crozier says:

    Not terribly long ago, I used to keep a fish or two out of season. I’m mostly a catch and release guy anyway. I stopped doing it when I realized that almost everybody I knew was doing the same, or going out again after offloading a limit of fish. The net poachers are seriously bad news but the small time recreational poacher is also. Its the death by a thousand cuts scenario. Hail Mary full of grace…

  5. Joe Yack says:

    No wonder we have been seeing less and less fish showing on the flats each spring… they never get a chance to get there. I also grew up in a fishing town with lots of watermen…one was my best friend and hero until his passing a few years ago…My opinion of Watermen is quickly changing and would like to see all commercial fishing for Striped Bass go to Hook and Line gear as it is more easily enforced and like the hand tongs used for oysters “does not fish unless the waterman is actively fishing”… thank you for yet another enjoyable read.

  6. uncle phill says:

    Your writings are fantastic. The way you blend history and current events, feelings from the past and how they change over time, and always end with an important message. Thanks for helping us to more fully understand a problem, whether its educating us on how to locate fish or pointing out the complexities of fisheries management. There is always a good read here on CLT.

  7. Mike Burrows says:

    I think this may be one of your best. Thanks for sharing.


  8. Jeremy Gussient says:

    I haven’t thought about how negatively this is impacting law-abiding watermen so thank you for that. I am worried that there aren’t that many left who won’t step across the legal line when the opportunity presents. It’s all about money you know. If DNR reopens the gill net season this year it will be a travesty. That goes for next winter too. They don’t know how many nets are out there. I bet there are thousands.

  9. KLGladhill says:

    I want a “like” button on every good site, well written article. It will be sad when the day comes that we no longer see those wonderful work boats on the Chesapeake.

  10. Colin Long says:

    Great article. One of the best!

  11. jumbo1 says:

    Great read Shawn…majority of my family years ago were waterman…my dad still works on the water when he can…I am proud to be from a “watermans” family..thanks for the great write up…

  12. RogerT says:


    I’m all for the honest, hard working, waterman of the Chesapeake Bay.Unfortunately we have a few bad apples out there too.Hopefully some changes can be made to make it more difficult for these guys to operate Illegally.

  13. Pete Zimmerman says:

    I just heard they are going to open the gill net season back up. Can you believe that? Why would they even consider that?

  14. Shawn says:

    I don’t think the decision is made yet, Pete, but I agree that it would be a grievous error to reopen it. The Department says they don’t know how many nets are out there and how many illegal fish are still coming in. By the same token, there was probably hundreds of thousands of fish taken illegally before they found the first nets. I think we have to contact the DNR Secretary, Governor, and local representatives to let them know how we feel. Opening a gill net season in Maryland while this illegal activity is going on would be a travesty.

  15. Mike M. says:

    What a great article. I agree with one of the previous comments that there’s a lot of sincere insight in this piece. I picked up on this only recently with reports on the local fox station and felt like pulling what little hair I have out. Whatever the existing penalties are need to be increased to the point where one would be sorry for being born when caught red-handed …

  16. skf says:

    Great article Shawn. It’s shocking how many fish are being poached. I know of at least 2 local restaurants that sell rockfish, had to talk my wife and friend out of ordering it on Friday. Don’t know where they get their fish from but didn’t want to chance supporting this practice.
    Are there any organizations that are lobbying for change that we can help support?

  17. Daniel says:

    As far as organizations go I think you’d do well by checking out the Maryland Chapter of CCA (and Careful Catch). Dad (Shawn) can point you in the right direction on that. The yearly dues are cheap if you want to join. They have a website and the facebook page is up and running if you’re on there. Speaking of restaurants, has anyone thought about asking the proprietors where they get their fish they sell? Are they from a market? Do they know where their fish-mongers get their fish? Maybe if we can get the local restaurant owners/chefs to exhibit some accountability a trend will start. I’d also recommend anyone who’s a fan of to read G. Bruce Knect’s “Hooked.” It’s a face-paced read about the still popular chilean sea bass market and the complete devastation of the species. Eateries are boycotting the chilean sea bass now, and I think a similar tack could be taken with regards to striped bass. Maybe if we can get the restaurants to stop buying, then the poachers can’t keep selling.!/pages/Careful-Catch-Maryland/177235722302350

  18. skf says:

    thanks for the info I’ll check into cca, also good idea about talking to the restaurants… dink think of that the other night but next time I’m there I’ll ask the chef.

  19. jumbo1 says:

    Daniel I do believe you are a “chip off of the old block’…good info..

  20. Shawn says:

    Despite all our efforts, the Maryland DNR announced they will reopen the gill net season for two days. CCA Maryland and other fisheries and conservation groups staunchly opposed the decision to reopen. DNR did say they would work harder on enforcement and consider phasing out gill netting unless reforms are made. We all know it’s impossible to enforce laws against anchored nets, so I hope that means it’s just a matter of time. The wheels of change turn slowly in Maryland.

  21. Daniel says:

    Well, that’s unfortunate.

  22. jay townsend says:

    Shawn I am awed by your communication and fishing skills!Good work! Tony

  23. David says:

    Thank you for a thought and action provoking commentary

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