The term waterman, unique to Chesapeake Bay, refers to a commercial fisherman harvesting oysters, blue crabs and finfish or otherwise making a living from Bay waters. Maryland has a 300-year tradition of this noble endeavor.
Fish Are Biting …
The yellow perch run is on in the mid-Bay. Anglers are catching good numbers of these beautiful and tasty devils as the males are running up into the tributaries in advance of the spawn. Although the smaller fish run earliest, you will find some larger neds in the mix. Minnows, grass shrimp and worms fished on shad darts under a bobber remain the traditional method. The minimum size is nine inches and the limit is 10 fish.
Rabbit: thru Feb. 28
Lore typifies the waterman as among the most romantic, hardy and adventurous figures that have graced the Chesapeake. Wresting a living in the manner of generations of their forefathers, watermen still ply the Bay in their long, white, graceful workboats in all types of weather, gathering crabs, oysters, clams and rockfish, and providing Maryland seafood markets and restaurants with table fare second to none.
But there is another perception of this figure that has been simmering beneath the surface for many years and is now emerging onto the headlines of newspapers and Internet websites, not only in Maryland but across the nation. It a picture of commercial greed, rapacity and contempt for law, regulation and the very natural resources on which this profession’s livelihood depends.
What was once described as the waterman’s fierce and rugged independence has for some individuals apparently corrupted into a vicious outlaw attitude that seems bent on the destruction of an entire profession.
Natural Resources Police, heeding persistent rumors of illegal gill netting for rockfish, have been uncovering the extent of its existence the past few weeks. It appears the practice has been substantial. Defiantly, some of the nets discovered were set in the midst of an intense police presence and after the commercial fishery had already been closed by emergency decree.
Tons upon tons of striped bass, many laden with roe and ripe for spawning, were found in these nets. This scandal comes on the heels of an illegal commercial operation that was federally prosecuted in 2008. That one involved some 300 tons of rockfish over a four-year period of illegal activity.
The commercial associations representing watermen have been working hard to portray these incidents as the acts of a few bad apples, holding that the overwhelming majority of their numbers (approximately 600 active, full- and part-time) are composed of honest, hard-working individuals. But that may not be a completely accurate picture.
A recent DNR analysis of four years of commercial fishing arrest records found that almost half of all Maryland watermen had been cited for illegal operations during that period, with some being arrested multiple times.
Consider also in these alarming statistics the chances of actually getting caught doing something illegal on the Tidewater. The number of Natural Resource Police (160 field officers) is miniscule compared to the area that has to be policed: 500,000 acres of parks and recreational areas; 17,000 miles of shoreline; 6,400 square miles of water.
Arguably, the traditions of Maryland watermen deserve to be preserved and nurtured. Despite the recent scandals, most Marylanders, myself included, continue to hold to that belief. Three hundred years of hard work, perseverance and history should not be discarded because of the acts of outlaws, whatever their number.
The reward fund for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for illegal gill net fishing now exceeds $30,000. Information and tips are slowly coming in to DNR hotlines, but arrests have yet to be made. Gill net prosecutions are extremely difficult unless the individuals are caught in the act.
Natural Resources Police have emphasized that their ongoing investigations are expected to be long-term and intense. New legislation is being proposed significantly increasing the penalties for this kind of illegal activity.
Perversely, while the outrages of the net fishery are capturing headlines, in the background there remains pervasive commercial oyster poaching. Bills are being presented in the Maryland legislature increasing the penalties for those activities as well and providing for the stripping of commercial licenses for watermen caught poaching or violating oyster sanctuaries.
Whatever happens in the near future, one thing is becoming clear. Marylanders may love their watermen — but the current crop working the Chesapeake has a lot of housecleaning to do if they expect to retain the privilege of maintaining this tradition.