Tag Archives: Watermen

Regulations Threaten Maryland’s Watermen Tradition

By Lauren Loricchio
Capital News Service

ST. MICHAELS – It’s still dark outside when Guy Spurry and his 19-year-old son Austin begin their day.

Beneath the darkness of the November sky, the two men drive past the Eastern Shore fishing village of Neavitt, and pull up to a dock where Guy Spurry’s 31-year-old boat, the Voyager, rocks back and forth gently against the salty waves.

Watermen have been harvesting the seafood enjoyed by Marylanders for centuries. But only time will tell how long the tradition will last.

“It’s hard enough to make it as a waterman these days, given the fact that so many of the things that they’re harvesting — like crabs — the numbers are declining,” said Kate Livie, director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum of St. Michaels.

The Spurry father-and-son duo hop on their boat and cruise away from Neavitt wharf as orange and pink emerges above the darkness of the skyline. When the bright autumn trees dotting the shoreline grow distant, the boat slows to a halt. The men release a power dredge into the water, pulling up a metal net full of oysters.

“Right now we’re doing great. We’re catching our limit,” Guy Spurry said.

Power dredging, a method used to harvest oysters, has been permitted in Broad Creek, an Eastern Shore tributary of the Choptank River, since 2003. The method involves using a dredge to scrape the shellfish up from oyster bars. It’s a more efficient alternative to the labor-intensive, hand-tonging method.

The men cull through their catch, pushing small oysters into a large pile that will be thrown back into the brackish water. Oysters measuring three inches or greater are good for the taking. They’re dropped into an orange bushel basket.

This is Austin Spurry’s first year working as a full-time waterman. He’s learning the ropes from his father, he said.

Austin Spurry is a fourth generation waterman and will carry on the family tradition, like his father.

“It’s generally a family thing,” said Guy Spurry.

Guy Spurry quit school at 16 to go oystering with his own father, he said. His 72-year-old father, Joe Spurry Sr., owns the seafood distribution company, Bay Hundred Seafood, and the Chesapeake Landing restaurant in St. Michaels.

“I went with him probably when I was 14 in the summertime, and I knew what I was going to do,” Guy Spurry said. “It was good back then and it’s good now. We’ve had some ups and downs just like any job,” he said. “But to be successful you’ve got to take the good with the bad.”

The history of watermen is a long standing one, and is rooted in Maryland culture, said Kelley Phillips Cox, president of the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center in Tilghman.

“It’s been part of our heritage since the 1600s. It’s a very important culture we’re losing here in Maryland,” Cox said.

Cox is a marine biologist who comes from a long line of watermen. Her family has been on the Eastern Shore since 1634, she said.

Cox works on trying to keep the Chesapeake Bay clean, most importantly for the watermen who provide food to the region’s inhabitants, she said.

“I think it’s getting better,” especially over the past five years, she said. “What’s happened is we finally bottomed out on disease. What’s going to die from diseases is pretty much dead. It’s kind of like natural selection. The oysters are now reproducing and they have a little more disease resistance.”

Dermo and MSX, parasitic organisms that can infect an oyster and lead to its death, are diseases that have plagued the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay for years, according to Eric Weissberger, an environmental specialist with Maryland Department of the Environment’s Fishery Service.

Despite reports showing a dwindling oyster population, Guy Spurry said oystering has been good for him this year.

“It’s a lot better now than it was 15, 10 years ago,” he said. “We were allowed to start power dredging in 2003. You couldn’t even make yourself do the job. It was pitiful. You’d catch about five bushel a day if you could force yourself to stay and do it.”

But, by 2005, he said they caught 10 bushels an hour.

“It’s all due to mother nature being on your side,” he said. “Disease can come along… and they [the oysters] can be all gone this time next year.”

Watermen say increased regulations and oyster sanctuaries have strained them financially.

Talbot County watermen were forced to stop harvesting in Harris Creek, when the area was closed in 2010 and turned into an oyster sanctuary.

“By protecting some areas, we hope to rebuild the population. Sanctuaries are necessary to protect the broodstock of the oyster population,” Weissberger said.

But Harris Creek was a productive area for oyster harvesting.

“Harris Creek was one of our main [oyster] tonging areas. So now we’re just corralled into a small area in Broad Creek,” said Lisa Gowe, treasurer and event coordinator for the Talbot County Watermen’s Association. Gowe’s husband, John, is a fifth-generation waterman who has been harvesting seafood since the age of 15.

According to Phillips, the oyster sanctuaries are necessary to improve the water, but she disagrees with the amount of sanctuaries across the state.

“The biggest problem I have with it, is that the state is not allowing the watermen to even cultivate it. …As far as Harris Creek goes, we’ve just closed it and we’re not allowing anything to happen to it,” she said.

Phillips explained that a layer of sediment covers the oysters reefs when left untouched. The oysters eventually die when covered by the sediment, she said.

Power dredging the bottom, cultivates the oysters and removes the layer of sediment that forms over the oysters. It’s kind of like cultivating a field, said Mick Blackistone, executive director of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.

“There are too many people that think it doesn’t help, and it does. We’re proven that it does,” Blackistone said.

The watermen wish regulators and scientists would listen to them, Blackistone said.

“The bureaucrats making these decisions do not listen to the watermen and don’t really take our advice,” he said. “And they should because we know the water. We know the fisheries better than they do.”

“If they would listen to us, and take our knowledge and merge it with their scientific findings, then to me you have a win-win situation,” he said.

Livie said the division between watermen, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and some of the environmental groups has been a longstanding one. It goes back to the late 19th and early-20th century when the first major crash in the oyster harvest occurred, she said.

Despite the regulations, watermen like Guy and Austin Spurry will continue doing the work their fathers did before them.

“I try to get along with everybody. I don’t have nothing against them but some of their theories are wrong. And watermen’s theories are wrong too, sometimes. You know. It’s just the way it is,” Guy Spurry said.

CNS 11-08-13

No Longer A Chicken Necker’s Wife

Twenty years ago, I married a waterman trapped in a chicken necker’s body. He spent all of his free time on the water. While I, on the other hand, spent all of my time trying to understand his love for chicken necks and bull lips. One day he came home and told me he met someone. A special someone who shared the same interests he had. Some one who could give him what he wanted. Someone who not only listened to him, but understood his passion-his name was Ted. My husband ha no idea what I was imagining, but in that moment, I decided I better learn everything I could about crabbing. Four years later we made the move to Kent Island. My husband had tried to convince me that our children would never get the same level of education on the Western shore that they would on the Eastern shore. I didn’t fully believe him, but I knew the Eastern shore was calling his name. Over the past sixteen years, my husband has endeared himself to many local watermen, and we have spent almost as many hours on the water that we have on the land. This past Monday, a man by the name of Rudolph Green, changed my husbands life forever. He’s a quiet, unassuming man yet he belongs to a group of elite men who made the Eastern shore what it is today. He’s a local waterman, who after seventy years has passed the torch to my husband. It wasn’t the signing of the paper that completed my husbands transformation-it was the blessing Mr.Green gave him when he said, “Congratulations, you are no longer a chicken necker.” In that very moment, I was flooded with emotion. I saw joy, I saw sadness, I swear I could see the very water that man had spent his life working on, in his tearing eyes. I also understood in that moment, what drew my husband to the Eastern shore and I knew he was right about our children’s education, but it came by the way of the water and the way only the Eastern shore can teach. So thank you to all the watermen that came with and those that come before, but especially to Mr.Green for making a chicken necker’s dream come true.

No longer a chicken neckers wife


Watermen Back At Work Picking Up Scraps

Maryland watermen are scouring the Chesapeake Bay in search of ghost pots. Ghost pots are crab traps that have been lost by watermen and continue to trap and kill crabs and fish. State officials say more than 4,000 pieces of crabbing gear have been pulled from the bay since last week when the program began. This is the third year for the ghost pot program that is part of a federal grant that followed a disaster declaration for the bay’s blue crab fishery. The grant provides aid for watermen who are hired to remove lost traps. The grant also helps ensure the sustainability of the crab population. About 700 watermen are working at 14 sites across the bay. The program continues through mid-April.

Attorney General Confirms DNR Watermen Probe

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office confirmed that the Department of Natural Resources sought court orders allowing the placement of tracking devices on the boats of watermen. State lawmakers, including 36-D Delegate Michael Smigiel, had asked the department to provide evidence that DNR acted lawfully in its investigation into possible natural resources violations. A year ago, several Dorchester County watermen found a tracking device underneath the sterns of their boats. DNR Secretary John Griffin admitted to placing the devices on the vessels to monitor any illegal activity. He said his department had obtained warrants for the devices. A letter sent earlier this month by Deputy Attorney General John B. Howard Jr. to Griffin confirmed Griffin’s claims. Smigiel said he also later received a letter from Howard saying a review found Griffin had not abused his authority. Smigiel, who has threatened to sue over the probe, questioned why the attorney general’s office would not reveal which court authorized the placement.

Five Men Busted on NRP Violations; One An Imposter

Five watermen have been charged with oyster violations in Dorchester County. Natural Resources Police said they found four watermen illegally diving for oysters in the Little Choptank River. Officers charged 36-year-old Bryan Grimes of Chester, 61-year-old Edward Grimes of Stevensville, 19-year-old Mason Coursey of Centerville and 19-year-old Christopher Marvel of Grasonville with catching oysters for commercial purposes by diving in an area reserved for hand-tonging. Officers returned four bushels of oysters to the water. About a half-hour later, police say officers found 42-year-old Nelson Goslin Jr. of Cambridge power dredging for oysters in Fishing Bay. Goslin is charged with possessing unculled and undersized oysters and power-dredging in a hand-tonging area. Three bushels of oysters were returned to the water.

After seeing his name in media reports, 19-year-old Mason Coursey of Centreville notified the NRP that the individual identified as Mason Coursey is an imposter. Investigators say the imposter apparently took the license from the real Coursey’s boat. The suspect remains at large but the NRP says an arrest is imminent.

Watermen Taking Hit Due To Restrictions

Watermen say they are taking a big hit this winter because of new restrictions on rockfish; five-percent less this season after illegal nets were found last year with tons of striped bass. The president of the watermen’s association sent a letter to the state, asking DNR to restore the full quota. Watermen say they do not want to pay for the actions of a few, but some admit it may be too late.

Waterman Faces Big Fine

A Dorchester County waterman is facing up to $28,000 in fines for oystering violations. The Maryland Natural Resources Police said that 23-year-old Joshua T. Tieder of Taylors Island was charged with 28 counts, including possessing undersized oysters. He’ll appear in court on February 15th.

Call for Oyster Moratorium Fails to Sway Watermen, Officials

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – The Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population has plummeted since the late 1960s, when Willy Dean, a Maryland waterman since the age of 17, would go hand tonging with his father and “load the boat with oysters.”

“The catch is way, way down from what it was back then,” Dean said.

The population is so low that several scientists recommended a complete halt on oyster harvesting in a study published in August by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. But a moratorium has not gained traction among watermen and state officials, who see the industry as an important tradition and a small but significant part of the state’s economy.

“People would have to get other jobs, leave the business. And once they leave, they don’t come back,” said Casey Todd, manager of Metompkin Bay Oyster Company, which operates an oyster shucking house in Somerset County. “You can bring the oysters back but you’re not going to bring these people back,” he said.

That would mean the end of what Todd and others see as an integral part of Maryland’s culture and history.

“We’ve been doing it for generations. My great-great-great grandfather did it,” Todd said.

Maryland should work to retain “even a small portion of that old business,” said Delegate Jay Jacobs, a Republican who represents all or parts of Kent, Queen Anne’s, Caroline and Cecil counties, and is a fourth-generation resident of Rock Hall on the Eastern Shore.

“Even though the numbers are very low as far as the catch goes, I think it’s important that we maintain that view of that heritage,” said Jacobs, who recently boarded a Chesapeake Bay Foundation boat to watch hatchery-produced oyster spat being placed on a sanctuary reef.

Plagued by disease, overfishing and habitat loss, the bay’s oyster population — once the nation’s largest fishery — has declined nearly 100 percent since the early 1800s and 92 percent since 1980, according to the recent study.

Michael Wilberg, the study’s chief researcher, argues a complete halt to fishing is necessary to restore populations and reefs.

“We think that fishing pressure has been one of the more important forces that’s been acting on oysters over the last probably 150 years or so, and that reducing or eliminating that fishing mortality on oysters would provide them an additional opportunity to begin to recover,” said Wilberg, who works in the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons.

Based partly on recommendations from the state’s Oyster Advisory Commission, which issued its legislative report in February 2009, Maryland recently expanded its network of oyster sanctuaries but stopped short of a full moratorium.

William Eichbaum, former chairman of the commission, said he started out believing a moratorium might be the solution. But leaving oysters alone, with neither fishing nor investments in restoration, would be a “gamble,” he said.

“My own view, as the commission worked, evolved to the point where I didn’t think that (a moratorium) was the single-bullet solution to the problem,” Eichbaum said, adding that even without fishing, investments would be necessary to help restore the population.

With disease a significant short-term challenge, Eichbaum came to the conclusion that a “large-scale, well-designed sanctuary program” would be sufficient to give oysters an opportunity to develop disease resistance and bounce back. Most oysters in the state’s restoration efforts come from UMCES’s Horn Point Oyster Hatchery.

Eichbaum said he has not seen Wilberg’s study, but a group of scientists and fisheries managers — members of the Bay Foundation’s Fisheries Goal Implementation Team — is reviewing management options for the oyster fishery based on the latest science, said Stephanie Westby, oyster coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay office.

Members of that group “have some interest in creating some process whereby the new science and old science, the best available science … can be reviewed, and to try to evaluate the status of the wild fishery in order to help drive management options,” Westby said.

Officials at the Department of Natural Resources argue a complete moratorium is unnecessary and would hurt the state’s economy.

“We have already put 24 percent of our oyster grounds into a moratorium, and we are committed to studying how that affects populations of oysters in those areas over a five-year timeframe,” said Michael Naylor, assistant director of the shellfish program at the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service.

Slightly more than 100,000 oyster bushels were harvested in the 2010-2011 season. While dramatically lower than harvests of several decades ago, last season’s harvest had a dockside value of more than $3 million, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Harvested oysters have their shells pried open in shucking houses, which adds value, before going to distributors and supermarkets.

“There’s this whole vertical structure between (a waterman) and that eventual buyer, all of which would be affected locally by a moratorium,” Naylor said.

Naylor said the fishery’s direct impact on Maryland’s economy is probably between $10 million and $15 million.

“That’s not nothing in anybody’s book,” he said.

But the sanctuaries, which are sometimes targets of poaching and are starting to be opened for aquaculture leases, are not enough, said Mechanicsville resident Ken Hastings, a longtime environmental activist who supports a moratorium.

“I can’t think of another resource that anyone would allow to get down to 0.1 percent of its historical abundance and still insist on going out and indiscriminately killing,” Hastings said. “You wouldn’t do that with deer or pheasants or black bear or anything like that.”

The oyster habitats are so diminished that a moratorium would have little impact on the industry’s cultural importance in Maryland, Hastings said.

“I think the cultural significance is pretty much gone, and I don’t see that coming back, certainly in my lifetime,” he said.

Bay Watermen Head South

All the wet weather the Mid-Atlantic region experienced over the summer is proving problematic for many of the watermen who make their living in the upper part of the Chesapeake Bay. All the silt and pollutants that have been dumped into the northern portion of the bay as a result of flooding have killed many oysters. That has forced many of the watermen to head to lower parts of the Bay where oyster mortality is not an issue. Watermen up and down the bay are already dealing with limited resources due to state-imposed sanctuaries and other restrictions. This has put more areas off limits for watermen when it comes time for harvesting. Traveling to other parts of the bay to work is also an added cost for watermen. In some cases they have to travel two hours just one way to harvest oysters in order to turn a profit.

No Rockfish Cutbacks

The Atlantic Marine States Fisheries Commission decided against cutting back on the amount of rockfish that can be harvested next year. The proposal originally could have meant watermen would have to make do with as much as a 50-percent reduction in next year’s harvest. Last year, recreational and commercial fishermen caught more than four-and-a-half-million pounds of rockfish. Representatives from states along the north Atlantic Coast say they are not catching many rockfish anymore and say overfishing in Mid-Atlantic States is to blame. Reps from those states say population numbers do not suggest overfishing is occurring. One Maryland rep tells the “Baltimore Sun” if the rockfish population is a concern, the commission should come up with new protections for menhaden today, since that is the primary food source for rockfish.