Our Bay:

This week's take: Have you hugged a waterman lately?

By BOB GALLAGHER For The Capital
Published August 16, 2008

Within the last few months a series of newspaper articles have covered:

New restrictions on harvesting female crabs.

Bountiful catches of crabs by watermen.

A soft market for crabs caught by watermen.

A crackdown on crabbers bending the rules.

And efforts by the governor to obtain assistance for crabbers by declaring a disaster.

These articles suggest to this non-scientist that our fisheries policies are not working and that they are causing hardship for watermen. We won't succeed in saving crabs and other species and we will continue to pursue fisheries policies that are unfair to watermen until we take meaningful steps to stop polluting our rivers and the bay.

The resources of the Chesapeake Bay belong to all of us. Through our elected and appointed officials, we license watermen to harvest fish, shellfish and crabs. The arrangement makes delicious and, we hope, healthy seafood available to us and provides a livelihood for hundreds of watermen.

The responsibility of government officials managing this arrangement is to see that species are harvested at sustainable rates. They haven't always done that. In the case of shad and sturgeon for example, our government officials have failed us. It will likely be decades, if ever, before populations of these species again support commercial fisheries.

Catch limits have been set on many other commercially harvested species because of a concern for the continued viability of those species. Those judgments are often challenged by watermen who believe that scientists don't give sufficient weight to their on-the-water observations.

Based on the best science available to them and to avoid a feared collapse of the crab population, Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials earlier this year ordered further reductions in the commercial crab harvest. The ink had barely dried on the new rules when crabbers began reporting an abundance of crabs in their traps. So the conflict continues between regulators and watermen.

Overfishing is not the only reason that fisheries decline. Pollution can also be a significant or even a determining factor. But, when a fishery is at risk of collapse, catch reductions may be necessary to avoid collapse whether the cause is primarily overfishing or pollution.

Unfortunately, even when we make a good faith effort to stabilize sustainable fisheries, we often fail. Take oysters for an example. If it wasn't for government supported restocking of oyster bars, it is debatable whether we would have an oyster fishery.

While there may be some exceptions, we shouldn't expect harvest limits or even fishery closures alone to bring back our declining species. Until we dramatically reduce contaminated runoff from our farms and from development, fisheries will continue to decline and harvest limits alone won't solve the problem.

Not only have our fisheries policies failed to protect the bounty of the bay, but we have broken faith with our watermen.

For generations watermen have invested their capital and their working lives to provide us with food for our tables. We have failed to stop the pollution that is destroying their livelihoods, risks our public health and our quality of life.

Year after year, they have had to work harder to stay even. Each time we reduce catches, we give watermen a pay cut. Over the years we have given them one pay cut after another. If you calculate the expenses a waterman incurs to land his or her catch and the price he or she gets for it, it is apparent that the return on their investment is far less than the return that other small businesses expect.

For many, it is less than a living wage. For many, the economics of fishing create an incentive to bend the rules. There is something wrong with a system that sets catch levels such that a waterman who catches all to which he is entitled can't earn a reasonable return on his labor and investment.

To protect our remaining fisheries, we should adopt a system that limits the number of watermen to a number that can make a reasonable living harvesting each species at a sustainable level. And we should provide to those who are displaced support and training to enter other skilled jobs.

Most importantly, to secure a future for the next generation of watermen and to protect our economy, property values, public health and quality of life we need to make watermen a part of our efforts to stop and reverse the pollution of our waters.

Bob Gallagher is executive director of the West/Rhode Riverkeeper Program in Shady Side. For information, visit www.westrhoderiverkeeper.org.

(Revised August 2008)