The bay's diminishing bounty

At the turn of the 20th century, fortunes were made and lost on Chesapeake Bay oysters. But those days were long ago. Today’s oyster and crab fisheries are faced with disease and decline. Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, recently discussed the economics of a life on the water.

The crabbing season began in April. How has it gone so far?

It started off good because they had a lot of big crabs, an abundance in early spring, but that’s due to the warm winter. It’s slowed down now because this is the time of year that it always does. The crabs are shedding -- losing their shells -- and growing. It’s usually the slackest time of year.

How does this enterprise work as a business for the individual waterman? I imagine they have to buy a boat. That must be their biggest investment.

I guess so. It’s hard to put a number on it because we’ve got people that fish and crab out of small bateaus that they’ve probably got $10,000 in, and we’ve got people that fish out of boats that are worth a couple hundred thousand dollars. It depends on the rig, where they’re fishing, how far they have to travel, how big a crew they’ve got, how much ambition they’ve got, a whole gamut of things. There’s no magic number that you can put on it.

Are there any waterman that get rich doing it?

Watermen don’t work on the water to get rich. They all have to have enough money to live off of and to keep operating, but they do it because of the way of life. It’s in the area that they grew up in. Sometimes it’s the only job available to them. The other thing is, it was always the most prestigious job to have in these communities, to be a boat captain. It’s just a way of life. If it was the money, they’d be doing something else.

What does a typical waterman make in a year?

Again, it varies according to where you are, what you’re fishing and what kind of rig you’ve got. It varies from a $10,000- or $15,000-a-year job to maybe a $40,000- or $50,000-a-year job.

Somebody with a big boat that has a crew of three or four and fishes his limit of crab pots -- in the course of a season, he might sell $100,000 to $200,000 worth of crabs. You might say that he’s really making a lot of money. Well, most of that money goes right back into the economy. First, he’s got to buy his crab pots. Second, he’s got a huge bait bill he has to pay. He has a big fuel bill. He has employees he has to pay, so he’s keeping two or three families going. The money he ends up with at the end of the year is probably around $20,000. It’s a big economy that starts with that crab.

Do you have an idea of how big a business it is in the state?

I don’t have that number at my fingers here. It’s very big. Oysters alone are like $10 million [a year], and that’s way down. If you are looking at crabs, you are talking about a tremendous amount of money -- not just the crabber but the shore-side facilities, the picking houses, everything that goes with that. It’s a tremendous amount of money that goes into the economy of the state of Maryland.

Incomes are down, aren’t they? Last year was a bad one for both crabs and oysters, according to the state’s figures.

We’re used to lows and highs. We gear ourselves towards that. The problem is, for us, when government steps in and puts regulations on [catches] so that when the species returns to its normal high, we’re still held where it would be at a low.

An example is the striped bass. We’ve got a tremendous abundance of striped bass but commercially we’re not allowed to harvest them any better than we were if we had the worst low that we’ve ever had.

Every waterman is geared to do everything. He’s a crabber, he’s an eeler, he’s an oysterman, he’s a fisherman. We’re geared to harvest according to the abundance of the species, so, we’ve all got a lot of gear that we don’t use all the time. What happens when you have restrictions put on fisheries and you don’t relax those restrictions when an abundance comes back, then it’s a false shortage of stock. We can’t overcome that.

Let’s say we have a shortage of oysters. Ordinarily when you have a shortage of oysters, you have an abundance of fish, so the oysterman would all go fishing. Now we have a shortage of oysters, we have a bunch of fish but with the regulations we’re operating like we have a shortage of fish.

But they lifted the fishing moratorium for striped bass a few years ago.

They lifted the moratorium, but they kept it at such a reduced rate that we’re operating like we have a shortage of fish. That’s what’s killing us. We’re used to the species going up and down. It’s when government steps in and puts undue regulations on us [that we get hurt.]

It’s not to say that we don’t need regulations. We need regulations on everything. But you need the regulations to reflect the abundance or lack of abundance of a species. Bureaucrats don’t like to take regulations off once they’ve put them on.

There was quite a bit of controversy last year when the governor enacted a new set of crabbing regulations. What were some of the things that were changed?

The problem with the crab regulations [is] it’s hard to get one regulation that will fit everybody.

The bay is long. The watermen in different areas are geared to different methods of fishing. To find one regulation to fit all without hurting one group more than others is hard to do. Last year we went along with [the limit to] an eight-hour day because that hit everybody. But then the lower-bay crabbers got an injunction against that law. The government’s way to catch up when that injunction came off was to impose more regulations. That was to shorten the season. That put undue hardship on the crabbers in the middle section of the bay because that was their main time of harvest. They paid the price more than anybody else.

Have these new restrictions forced anyone out of business? Have you heard of anyone who can’t keep up?

There are a lot of people who are trying to get other jobs to supplement their income. The problem really is, you can’t get a job and make enough money to pay your bills on your boat, insurance and all that. It’s not the easiest thing to go get a job, especially on the Eastern Shore where the high paying jobs might be $10 an hour. And you can’t sell your boat and equipment because nobody wants to buy it when you have a down time. You’re stuck in an industry you can’t really get out of.

When the state enacted tighter crabbing regulations it cited some recent studies that reported historically low crab populations in the bay. The NOAA study said they were at a 30-year low. Do you dispute those numbers?

They’re probably off, but I have to say the trend is down. Regardless of the total number, the [crab population] trend is going down. We don’t dispute that. We dispute the reason why it’s going down.

The reason it’s going down is the environment. We don’t have any submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) anymore. All the developments, farms, sewage treatment plants, they’re all putting stuff in the water that kills SAVs. Without that, the crabs don’t have anywhere to hide. So, by the time it gets big enough for us to catch, it’s already decimated. We’re the last ones in that food chain and by that time every predator in the world has had a shot at it.

If they don’t do something about what man is doing to the bay, they could eliminate us all together and it won't make any difference because you won’t have any resource. You can’t keep polluting the bay and expect to have a resource out there.

How long have you been working on the water?

I’m 64 years old, and I started with my great grandfather when I was about six or seven.

Is a career as a waterman something that you see young people still aspiring toward today or is it just not viable anymore?

We still have a waiting list of people that want to get a license. You still have the people who want to be watermen. When you grow up in a watering community there’s a certain percentage of the boys and some women who want to be watermen. There’s a certain type of people that the watering way of life appeals to them. If they work hard, I think they can still make a living. It’s a struggle, but it was a struggle when I was a young man. I don’t see that changing.

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