Volume 12, Issue 7 ~ February 12-18, 2004

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Chesapeake Outdoors

Fishermen’s Expo Highlights Bay’s Hopes and Woes

Ice shards relentlessly piled up along the shoreline of Assawoman Bay, ganging up with the harsh wind to bully surf scoters, which lifted and fluttered among the breakers to avoid slamming into the miniature icecaps.

It was a scene replicated across Delmarva, as waterfowl struggle day after day to stay one step ahead of the weather. Finding food and shelter is their sole mission in a perilous existence.

The glittering fragments of frozen chunks of bay looked like oyster shells must have decades ago, when they were dumped up along railroad tracks and used for paving roads, ignored as incidental discards of an industry that saw no end.

Inside the climate-controlled confines of the Ocean City Convention Center, commercial fishermen who roamed around might have empathized with the bird’s struggle. It was a far cry from the oft-harsh environs in which many ply their trade, but watermen still face the raw reality of a struggling industry, that, in many respects, is at its nadir.

From the drape-lined booths, entrepreneurs hawked all things a waterman would need to help make it on the Chesapeake, from foul weather gear and survival suits to crab pot line and bushel baskets. You could buy all you need to catch, net or trap at the 30th Annual East Coast Commercial Fishermen’s and Aquaculture Trade Expo.

But oyster and crab harvests in Maryland waters are at all-time lows. Each year, the number of active watermen and the heritage that they represent decline. The one thing that could bring them relief — clean water, an increasingly precious commodity — was not for sale.

In the January issue of The Waterman’s Gazette, the trade publication of the Expo’s chief sponsor, the Maryland Waterman’s Assoication, editor Mary Madison laid out precisely the Bay’s chief health thief — “bad water,” a term coined, I’ve heard, by watermen to describe water devoid of life-sustaining oxygen.

The demise of the Bay’s commercial fisheries and its fishermen is in large part the result of an all-too frequent condition commonly known as the “dead zone,” which is caused by too much nitrogen pollution flowing into the Bay from sewage treatment plants and from agriculture runoff.

Yet most of the buzz around the Expo centered on the state of the fisheries, the best approaches to manage or enhance them and, of course, the best way to harvest them. Far less attention was paid to the job of cleaning up the Chesapeake’s sick water.

I heard, and spoke with, some who are in favor of introducing into the Bay the Asian oysters. For many, they said it was the last hope, the only thing they can hang their hat on.

At the show, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a symposium about the proposed Environmental Impact Study by Maryland and Virginia to introduce sterile strains of the non-native oyster species, Crassostrea ariakensis into those states’ tidal waters to increase oyster populations.

Plans also include, thankfully, continuing native oyster restoration efforts in areas of the Chesapeake “where conditions are most favorable to achieve the Bay’s oyster restoration goals.” The end result is to restore a self-sustaining oyster population that reaches a level of abundance comparable to harvest levels of 1920 to 1970.

But it’s a harsh world out there, and the current odds are stacked against living resources because of the onslaught of pollution. Is the best we can hope for to exult in life’s beauty and endure the sorrow?

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Last updated February 12, 2004 @ 2:21am.