Tony Tochterman, who along with his wife, Dee, owns Tochterman's Fishing Tackle, the city's oldest bait and tackle store, remembers it well.
Tony and Bob Wall, division chief of Baltimore's Recreation and Parks Department, helped introduce area children to fishing by hosting a tournament. As they led the group down the hill, rods in hand, the Inner Harbor slowly came into view and the children's eyes lit up.
"Wow," one youth said. "That's the ocean."
"They had never seen water before," Tochterman said. "These are people in Baltimore City. That hit me a lot. It's one thing not to be able to go to Ocean City. But to look at that and think that's the ocean, that's bad."
What they were seeing, of course, was the Patapsco River emptying into Chesapeake Bay — hardly the size an ocean would be. But many of the fish that swim through the currents of the Atlantic Ocean, some 180 nautical miles east of the Harbor, could also live comfortably in Baltimore if the Healthy Harbor plan, which calls for a fishable, swimmable Inner Harbor by 2020, were to come to fruition.
But according to Tochterman, the city's waterways have headed in the wrong direction, which doesn't bode well for the cleanup efforts.
"I think it's feasible to have fishing around the harbor," said Dave Smith, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association. "It's right there; you just throw a line in. But the success you're going to have, I question."
How realistic is 2020?
In spite of the arduous task the Waterfront Partnership, the organization that wrote the Healthy Harbor plan, has in front of it, there are currently lines being cast near the harbor.
"We do have members that fish at Patapsco and they do get close to the Inner Harbor," Smith said. "There are fish in the Inner Harbor."
Smith went on to name white perch and spotted and striped bass as fish that can be found in the Harbor's water, though "the stripers and perch don't come up there quite like they used to," said Gene Kane, an employee at Tochterman's.
Smith added that catfish could be plentiful, too.
"The Chesapeake Bay is unbelievable," Smith said. "The fishing, the types of species — it's tops on the Atlantic coast."
But the days of anglers casting a line from the docks on the commercialized waterfront still seem far away. Tochterman smirks when asked whether the 2020 deadline date is realistic.
"There's not a shot in hell. If they did everything correctly starting today, it wouldn't be done [by 2020]," he said.
Added his wife, Dee: "People will not even touch a fish from the Harbor. That's sad. That's sad."
This past summer, and the overwhelming heat waves that accompanied it, intensified some of the problems that face the Healthy Harbor campaign. Algae blooms and fish kills vanquished waterways all over Baltimore. These were brought on by the unbearable heat, as well as rising nitrogen and phosphorous levels.
But pollution remains a daunting hurdle. Gaze into the murky water on the Harbor and visibility is a few inches at best.
In May, one month before the Sailabration event at the Harbor that attracted hundreds of thousands, sewage spills and algae blooms combined to create a raw sewage odor that overwhelmed the area around the Harbor. The smell drove away humans and fish alike.
"Fish have an acute sense of smell," Kane said.
Kane is a former Baltimore-area resident who moved across the bay to Delaware recently. Kane, an experienced angler, attributes the move mostly to the better fishing.
"It's just a little cleaner an environment [in Delaware]," Kane said.
"People don't realize that everything ends up in the Bay," Tochterman said. "When you pour fluid from lawn mowers, pharmaceuticals, anything that goes down the drain will end up in the Harbor. It's just a dumping ground for everything we want to get rid of that is not solid waste."
Restrictions are in place to prevent such dumping from cargo ships, for example, but the enforcement is a problem. Also, money allotted to cleanup doesn't always get there.
"There are a lot of funds that are directed toward cleaning up the bay," Smith said. "A lot of times those funds get raided by the governor to pay for other things. There's a lot of money out there for that. A lot of times it just doesn't directly affect those initiatives."
But perhaps the most difficult obstacle facing the Healthy Harbor initiative, and those like it to follow, will be public perception.
"The public has to realize it's not a dumping ground," Tochterman said. "We need to educate the public and keep the public enthused."
Perception began changing under former Mayor William Donald Schaefer's administration from 1971 to 1987. But since then, few strides have been made.
"If you look at the water, you're going to be like, 'There's nothing that can live in there,'" Smith said. "They have to tackle that issue before they can start promoting it as a fishing spot."
Fixing the perception effort is the first step.
"It's a group effort," Tochterman said. "It isn't just manufacturers. It isn't just the government. It's all of us working together. It isn't just the fishermen and the boaters."
Besides, Tochterman said, the Harbor is Baltimore's crown jewel. Turning it into a more pristine access point for fishing has many benefits. Continuing to move in the wrong direction, meanwhile, could be fatal.
"Who the hell from anywhere in the country is going to come to Baltimore [without] the Inner Harbor?" Tochterman said. "You kill the Inner Harbor, you kill Baltimore."
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