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Chesapeake Bay’s decline endangers watermen’s livelihoods

Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials join watermen to plant oyster spat in a public bar as part of oyster restoration efforts. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)

As a full-time waterman in St. Mary’s County, I am one of those most affected by the neglect of the Chesapeake Bay. I have a retail crab shack and a small processing operation where I sell my catch of oysters, crabs and fish — along with those of other watermen — to survive. We are an endangered species, our livelihoods and way of life impeded by the bay’s decline.

The governor claims the bay is “cleaner than it has been in recorded history,” but this is simply not true. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s “State of the Bay” report downgraded the bay’s health score this year to a D+ grade — an extremely generous grade. While the estuary is in better shape than in years past, it’s far from where it needs to be. There really is a Code Red emergency for the bay, and hiding failed efforts to restore it with over-statements hinders its recovery.

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There is a serious lack of real progress in significantly reducing pollutants from big farm operations, especially manure, and from developed areas. I have seen the decline in water quality and suffered from the resulting declines in oysters, crabs, clams and fish.

With Maryland's oyster population still hovering near historic lows, it's time to consider drastic actions.

The Maryland oyster population is down by 50 percent from 1999 because of overharvesting that’s often blamed on watermen, but is a result of state policies and practices. Consequently, watermen are being forced into aquaculture, also known as aquafarming, in which they breed, rear and harvest the crop themselves. This could be a viable option to make a living, except poor water quality can destroy all investments in growing oysters. I know of cases where several watermen here in St. Mary’s County invested in “leased bottom” — bay areas they rent to farm — and now have well over $30,000 worth of oysters they cannot harvest because of recent diminished water quality, which is out of their control.

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I know firsthand that there is overharvest of oysters and stealing from oyster bars, which are supposed to be left alone. I also have videos of illegal female crab harvest taking place during a moratorium. Department of Natural Resources Marine Police appear to look the other way.

My local government seems to ignore obvious pollution violations and to approve development without regard for pollution to the bay and its rivers. I have been spurred to activism by this apathy; I can’t bear to see the bay decline and watch so many people get away with environmental sabotage and using watermen as scapegoats.

A decade ago, Maryland politicians rewrote laws that allow aquaculture companies to use public waterways for private gain — and for the benefit of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem at large. But not everyone agrees it’s a positive development.

Enforcement actions during Governor Hogan’s first term in office shrank to the lowest levels in decades, and the number of water quality enforcement personnel at MDE dropped from 62 in 2010 to 47 in 2017. Our governor also made over $2 million in the last few years from real estate deals and Maryland land development, which continues to foster the degradation of the Chesapeake Bay.

Meanwhile, state and local office holders seem blinded to the need to take bold actions to rein in big farms and development pollution. The organized environmental community, led by the do-nothing Chesapeake Bay Foundation, fail to go after the biggest source of bay pollution — big business agriculture and industrial interests — even through common sense regulations to control manure runoff.

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Why buy a bushel when you can take a boat on the bay and catch your own

The Environmental Protection Agency has been paralyzed at the federal level by the current president, and its enforcement actions and personnel have shrunk radically. The EPA essentially has refused to enforce the Clean Water Act’s requirements for the bay as the states failed to meet their required 2017 pollution reductions for nitrogen by a wide margin. EPA did nothing despite advocates calling for action within and outside the agency. This undermines any hope of achieving the reductions necessary to restore the bay and the oysters, crabs and fish that I and others depend on for a living.

The bay needed really bold actions long ago. And the need only grows with each passing day.

Tim Dean (timmd63@gmail.com) is a third generation waterman who has been working the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac and Patuxent rivers in St. Mary’s County since he was 5, when he helped his mom collect soft crabs along the shoreline for sale.

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