Lawrence W. "Larry" Simns Sr., bay advocate

Larry Simns
(Algerina Perna, The Baltimore Sun)

Lawrence W. "Larry" Simns Sr., a fourth-generation waterman and longtime advocate for the Chesapeake Bay and those who make their living from its waters, died Thursday of bone cancer at his Rock Hall home. He was 75.

"Larry stood sentry for the watermen of the Chesapeake Bay for over 40 years and courageously carried their banner into the 21st century," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said in a statement.

"He fought to preserve their traditions and their opportunity to work on the water like their forefathers," she said. "He also had the tough challenge of helping them navigate a tough economy and difficult environmental factors facing our beloved bay."

"It is hard to imagine that Larry has been the dominant figure and speaker for the industry and watermen for 40 years," said John R. Griffin, state secretary of natural resources.

"He had amazing strength and fought and kept on pushing until the end. He was always looking ahead to set the course for the future for both the industry and watermen," said Mr. Griffin. "When God made Larry Simns, he threw away the mold, and filling his shoes will not be easy."

The son of Clifton Simns, a waterman and part-time barber, and Rebecca Simns, a homemaker, Lawrence William Simns Sr. was born and raised in Rock Hall, where he spent his entire life.

After graduating from Rock Hall High School in 1956, he looked to the Chesapeake Bay for his livelihood.

"He went right on the water and graduated from the school of hard knocks," said a stepson, Scott Hyland, who lives in Worton.

"I've known Larry most of our lives, and he was an A-1 waterman. He could do it all — crabs, oysters, clams and fish," said H. Russell Dieze, a Tilghman Island waterman and vice president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

More than 40 years ago, pointing out the virtual disappearance of some fish stocks and low oyster and crab yields from what was clearly an ailing estuary, Mr. Simns found the mission that occupied him for the remainder of his life.

In 1973, he established the Maryland Watermen's Association and served as its president until his death.

"Rock Hall hasn't changed too much. It's strictly a waterman's town, but things don't look too bright now, particularly at this end of the bay, with pollution and all," Mr. Simns told The Baltimore Sun in a 1974 interview.

"I remember when there used to be seven or eight different crews working purse netting from large sailboats to catch rock, trout, hardheads and perch," he said. "There were four canneries here; one was a year-round job which steamed and canned oysters in the winter."

Mr. Simns lamented the arrival of marinas and at the same time the departure of many businesses from Rock Hall, which forced residents to drive to Dover, Del., or Chestertown to shop.

"The way things are going, watermen are going to have to move down the bay or go someplace else to work," he said. "There are a lot of people here who don't know anything else but the water."

He found a willing ear in Sen. Charles C. McC. Mathias, who listened to the watermen's complaints when no one else in Washington would.

Mr. Mathias, a Maryland Republican, successfully persuaded Congress in 1975 to appropriate the first installment of a $27 million study of the bay and then got the administration of President Jimmy Carter, which was reluctant at first, to conduct the research into the estuary and its problems.

The research that eventually corroborated the watermen's worst fears has since resulted in the blueprint and continuing effort for the bay's recovery.

"Larry was a thinker and intelligent. He worked tirelessly and could work with people on both sides of the issue," said Mr. Dieze. "He just wanted everyone else to do their part."

Mr. Simns helped his organization reach a consensus with the state Department of Natural Resources on such controversial issues as the moratorium on rockfish, oyster management and quotas on harvesting female blue crabs.

"His goal was to get the bay back as a pre-1970 resource. He used to tell me that he didn't know how I did my job," said Mr. Griffin. "I told him it was a piece of cake when [compared with] his dealing with all of those irascible watermen, but he had the skill and temperament for it."

He said Mr. Simns was "always kind and gracious and open to discussing ideas" and was "able to keep separate his business debates from the personal."

"Larry wanted a viable commercial seafood industry and at the same time modernizing how they catch fish and crabs and the way the harvest is reported. He knew it was slow but steady progress," said Mr. Griffin.

"I am hoping that in Larry's memory, the watermen and the DNR continue to work together," he said.

Sarah H. O'Brien was editor of the Watermen's Gazette, a monthly publication of the Maryland Watermen's Association, in the 1990s.

"Larry understood how to deal with people and his ability to deal with them is something you can't teach. He had it," Ms. O'Brien said. "He was able to walk a line and could bring people together. He was the voice of the watermen before the DNR and the legislature."

He also served with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Maryland Tidal Fish Advisory Committee and Commercial Fishermen of America.

About 20 years ago, Mr. Simns became a full-time charter boat captain, sailing out of Rock Hall aboard his workboats Dawn I and later Dawn II.

In January, Gov. Martin J. O'Malley named Mr. Simns an admiral of the Chesapeake in recognition of his work.

Mr. Simns was an avid waterfowl hunter.

"He was still working a week before he died. He was still handling calls for the association," his stepson said.

A Pentecostalist, Mr. Simns was an active member of Rock Hall Church of God.

Last year, Mr. Simns published an autobiography, "The Best of Times on the Chesapeake Bay: An Account of a Rock Hall Waterman," which he wrote in collaboration with Robert L. Rich Jr.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. March 23 at the Fellows, Helfenbein & Newnam Funeral Home, 130 Speer Road, Chestertown.

Surviving are his wife of 20 years, the former Carolyn Walbert; two sons, Lawrence W. "Larry" Simns Jr. and Robert Simns, both of Rock Hall; a daughter, Dawn Nordhoff of Rock Hall; his mother, Rebecca Simns of Rock Hall; a sister, Joanne Travis of Rock Hall; three other stepsons, Jamie Hague of Rock Hall, Eddie Hyland of Tampa, Fla., and Richard Carter of Texas; a stepdaughter, Susan Barnhardt of Chestertown; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.