Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 30
July 26 - August 1, 2001
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Waterman Leader Larry Simns:
He Knows How to Play the Game

He who is a sheep is eaten by the wolves.
- old Italian proverb

Venerable Ben Franklin is said to have used that line not infrequently when representing the colonies before the administration of George III, King of England, as turmoil was approaching the Revolution. And we all know how that ended.

I don’t know whether Larry Simns is familiar with that quote, but it certainly applies to him. President of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, he has lived by it for many years.

He is no sheep, and no wolf is about to devour or even intimidate him. Across this country of ours, few leaders of commercial fishermen are - and have been - as effective as Larry Simns in promoting the cause of those who fish for financial gain.

For more than the past couple decades, I have watched the Rock Hall fisherman grow into his job and witnessed his mastery in gaining concessions for the watermen he represents. I observed his transformation from a brash and aggressive young firebrand to what I think can accurately be described as a statesman in fisheries circles.

The way I see it, Simns learned that anyone can holler and scream, anyone can dissent and demand, anyone can create turmoil and threaten. But all of that only draws attention, usually short-lived ineffectual attention; you know, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame.

To be effective over the long haul, one cannot remain antagonistic on the outside, griping and threatening. Instead, one must have the facts and know how to utilize and present them effectively within the system. Larry Simns has done just that.

Not infrequently, this writer’s views on fisheries issues are contrary to those of the vigorous spokesman for Maryland’s watermen. After all, he works for the cause of those who fish via net, long line, dredges, tongs, commercial hook ’n’ line, pots and such, and all for a payoff at the docks. My side is that of those who angle with hook and line or perhaps crab for sport, all for fun, and as a bonus, to put something on the family table.

Sometimes, sports fishermen win in these confrontations; other times they lose. But when leaving the table, they display grudging respect for Simns. He makes them do their homework, and he does his, and oft times the eventual solution is a fair compromise.

Not infrequently as I watched and still watch the deliberations from the neutral (in name only) press box at Department of Natural Resources meetings and public hearings, I envied, and still do, the watermen for having such an effective representative at the table. He is a full cut above the best we have to offer when the Department is open for deliberations on how the pie will be cut: who among sports, charter and commercial fishermen will get what.

I have learned one thing. When Larry yields a point, watch out. On another point, he will get as much if not more in return. He’s the master of the system, knows how to work it.

Yet I and others have seen something else, too. Simns has displayed understanding, sometimes even appreciation, of what sports fishermen or the department want in volatile fisheries issues. And though a waterman, his bottom-line understanding of the vital role conservation plays in long-term resource management cannot be easily questioned.

Dissension Rules
Now that has gotten him in a pickle. Simns is not a white-collar waterman; no, he’s of the blue-collar mold. He works the Bay, has a clam rig, and like some other commercial fishermen doubles as a charter captain in warmer months aboard his 46-foot Dawn II.

There are some within his own organization who think he is too cozy with the enemy: DNR, charter and sports fishermen. Even more vocal in their gripes are watermen from the lower Eastern Shore who are not affiliated with the Maryland Watermen’s Association. They don’t think Simns represents watermen; they think that he has sold out.

We need not be reminded that these are tough and crucial times for the blue crab, as well as for those who fish for it. Historically, when times get tough, things get heated, dissension rules, scapegoats emerge, sometimes sanity erodes. Things get to the bare-knuckle approach.

Commercial fishermen fight more vigorously. Sometimes their livelihood is at stake. Pretty much the same with charter skippers, who like their watermen counterparts, have effective leadership. Sports fishermen try, but at present they don’t have the clout. Never have; perhaps someday they will.

There’s a big Chesapeake Bay out there. Managed well, its bounty is sufficient to satisfy the needs of all three: watermen, charter interests and sports fishermen. But there are times when all must equally bite the bullet, and rarely is the typical waterman willing to taste the bitter flavor of lead.

Who can argue that crabs are at low ebb, if not threatened? Yet many watermen do, especially those of the Coastal Bays Watermen’s Coalition and the Blue Crab Conservation Coalition. With the latter group, “Conservation” is a misnomer.

They don’t appreciate that Simns and his mainstream watermen’s group worked with DNR to come up with a plan to curtail commercial catches by 15 percent via a day off each week and crabbing only an eight-hour day.
They’re making an awful lot of noise and, bolstered by seafood processors, they’re going to court. They want to continue crabbing as they always have, and they boo-hoo suggestions that crabs are in trouble. They want nothing to do with those among the state’s 6,000 watermen who see things differently and, for two reasons, are willing to compromise.

Good Reasons for Compromise
Reason No. 1. Crabs can use a respite.

Reason No. 2. The department, the governor, sports crabbers and a majority of the public at large insist catches be curtailed. DNR and the guv carry the big stick.

What has in recent years been a beneficial relationship among the department, watermen, the resource and other interests is becoming a quagmire of challenges, threats, intimidation and disruption. The image of watermen, already not always the best, is eroding.

One wonders whether those who hold short-term profits from their catches above the resource realize the potential consequences of their position. They’re running out of options. In the long past when crabs or clams were short, they could turn to oysters or finfish, or vice versa, and keep working.

But in recent years, that hasn’t worked. When one resource gets in big-time trouble, the next resource targeted, as with crabs, can’t handle the pressure. With nothing else to turn to, there is a fight to catch the last of a species.

Watching from the sidelines is the citizenry, who own the resource — and who, while appreciating that watermen catch the shellfish and finfish of the Bay, are growing appalled at the selfish disregard for sound management of that resource.

Methinks watermen of the Chesapeake over the long haul will fare better under the leadership of Larry Simns than anyone else. He is their stabilizer. He has a proven record of getting for them the most reasonably possible, and he does so with class.

No question that commercial fisheries in other states would gladly take him: They have seen what he has done here, and how effective he has been on behalf of watermen within coastal and national management circles.

Screaming and hollering no longer work. Fisheries management has become more sophisticated, more of a science. To deliver the goods, those playing the game must play with responsibility, savvy and awareness, which Larry Simns has. Enough said …

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly