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Following Shad Downriver

Soon oysters and crabs, too, will be just a memory

Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

Whether there’s any truth to the accusation that the Emperor of Rome fiddled as he watched Rome burn, I know not. But I do know there’s a lot of fiddling around as we watch two of Maryland’s greatest and tastiest national resources, oysters and crabs, turn to ashes.

For years now, the handwriting has been etched on Chesapeake Bay: Now, unless we take some bold and dramatic action, oysters and blue crabs won’t be much more than a memory. Yet watermen and others of the seafood clan from restaurateurs to picking houses, talk jobs and economics whenever Maryland Department of Natural Resources makes a suggestion or two about more than token cutbacks.

They’re fiddling around, playing their sympathy cards backed by political clout to keep on taking when it’s as obvious as day and night that mighty Chesapeake Bay can ill afford to yield any more of these treasures. It’s time to conserve, hoard what stock we have, shuck the fiddling and pick some reasonable options. Then follow through.

Depleting Our Common Wealth

Certainly it’s not easy to bite the bullet; jobs, boat payments, mortgages, loss of sales sound convincing. But would it not be more appropriate to accept them on a temporary basis, rather than lose them completely as the fiddlers play a dirge?

Moreover, the clams and oysters are ours, owned by the citizens of the state of Maryland. They are not exclusively the property of those who profit from them.

That we allow reapers to harvest from our Bay has been interpreted by them to mean it’s their show, their judgment, their risk — and their God-given right to harvest resources as they see fit. Whoa! They are not like farmers who own, lease or otherwise pay for their land, the taxes, fertilizer, seed, tractors, machinery and such. They are squatters on our land of pleasant living.

At the relatively inexpensive fee of a license, we grant them the right to exploit, not to manage, our resources. Yet each single one of them has no more right to decide what should be done than each single you and me. Why can’t pressured politicians and Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis get this through their heads?

I covet oyster stew and crab cakes for their taste, and here I am paying outlandish prices for them to those who for a pittance are virtual sharecroppers on my waters. I pay those prices because they have exploited the resources to such a degree that few are left, thus commanding the prices I pay. It’s take it or leave it. If you want your crab cake or oyster fritter badly enough, you won’t quibble over price.

Fishing While Shad Disappeared

I don’t have a memory like an elephant, but I can recall the days close to 30 years ago when DNR was considering a moratorium on shad. As with crabs and oysters of today, populations and catches were crashing. Sportsfishermen who liked nothing better than challenging these spectacular fighting fish and bringing home a roe or two, or perhaps filets, clamored for a ban.

The issue dragged on. Watermen had political clout; legislators from Bay Country wheeled and dealed as the nets of commercial watermen continued to haul shad from the waters of the Chesapeake and its tributaries. Finally, when there were few shad left to take, light bulbs lit in the noggins of the lawmakers. In their infinite wisdom, they decided a moratorium was in order.

We took action to save an important resource, they would boast. They failed to mention that they did so after the horse was stolen from the barn. The barn was also stolen. For more than 20 years the shad fishery has been closed tight in Maryland — and those who fished shad commercially lost another source of income that they might never get back.

Had they accepted deep and meaningful curtailments or an outright ban when catch records and other statistics indicated shad were in deep doodoo, they just might now be fishing again. But, no, they kept on taking until there was little left. Shad stocks dropped to the point where a comeback is proving almost impossible.

Should DNR have acted more boldly, bringing shad to a showdown by insisting the legislature back it on a moratorium? After all, it’s the department’s obligation to stand up for our natural resources. Knock heads, put sense into the heads of legislators who know as much about shad as I do about computers.

This time, that day has got to come. If not, kiss crabs and oysters goodbye. Legislators must soon realize that DNR’s team of fisheries scientists and administrators know more about our resources than they do. And they need to know that if it comes to a showdown, the citizens will back the department. We want our resources saved.

If you think I’ve got a bone to pick, you’re correct. Shad was among my favorite fishing. Fresh, just-caught roe is my favorite dish. Because shad fishing went to hell while everyone was fiddling around, I can no longer head, rod in hand, for the Susquehanna in late afternoon to catch dinner.

Now I wonder how much longer I’ll be able to go down to the community dock and catch a few dozen crabs for a feast.

Nero, put down that fiddle. Enough said.

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