EASTON — With the appointment of a well-known environmental leader to the top natural resources position in Annapolis, Eastern Shore watermen decided it’s time to gear up to defend their livelihoods.
About 50 commercial fishermen, along with a handful of local lawmakers, formed the nucleus of the new Eastern Shore Watermen’s Caucus to fund lobbying efforts in Annapolis and educate the public.
The DFA board proposed creating a war chest to fortify their lobbying efforts and garnered unanimous support from those who attended a meeting Sunday morning, Jan. 29, at Talbot County Community Center in Easton.
Queen Anne’s County waterman and farmer Robert Newberry, chairman of Delmarva Fisheries Association Inc., organized the meeting, along with members of the DFA board of directors.
Attending the two-hour meeting were Sen. Johnny Mautz, R-37; Del. Chris Adams, R-37B, chair of the Eastern Shore delegation; Del. Tom Hutchinson, R-37B; Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Phil Dumenil; Talbot County Council member Lynn Mielke; and Easton Town Council member Al Silverstein, who is President-elect of the Eastern Shore Association of Municipalities.
Leaders of watermen associations in Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Dorchester counties also attended.
Concerns about the new administration’s potential policies as well as the appointment of Josh Kurtz, Maryland Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, as Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, prompted Newberry to invite watermen to form the caucus.
Newberry said he was the only representative of the transition team representing “the natural resources … out of 1,300 people, and I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think we got much done on the transition team, other than getting the word heard about the natural resources and also with agriculture. That was basically not a big issue. So the two biggest industries in the state were not important to this transition team.”
According to Newberry, Kurtz accepted the trade association’s invitation to join the meeting, and Newberry published the response on social media. He said Kurtz “backed out of” the invitation late Friday afternoon, Jan. 27.
“He confirmed in an email to me that he was going to attend. He put it on his schedule. He looked forward to it, and I put a very nice letter together saying that we’ve got to work together to make the Chesapeake Bay a better place for not only the industry, but all citizens of the state. And he agreed.”
According to Newberry, Kurtz could only attend the meeting if he were accompanied by the governor’s deputy chief of staff.
“I’ve never really seen that happen before,” Newberry said. “With this administration, we’re probably going to see a lot of things we’ve never seen happen before.”
“I had multiple phone calls that this meeting had been canceled. This meeting was not canceled. (Kurtz) is the one that canceled, and it wasn’t his meeting,” Newberry said. “I thought it would be great to have him sit here and have the guys talk to him and ask him the million dollar question: ‘You were driving the agenda for the (Chesapeake) Bay Foundation for two years. Are you going to continue to do that as DNR secretary?’ That’s a fair question.”
“It’s most important with the change in the administration that we can come up with ideas and discuss situations that we can take to our delegates … and they can deliver to Annapolis,” Newberry said.
Among several concerns to watermen, the top three issues Newberry proposed as policy priorities are the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay, the ability to harvest and move oyster shell as habitat, and updated adaptive management practices.
The Bay’s water quality “is a very, very important issue because we can’t plant seed, we can’t catch crabs, we can’t catch fish if this Bay continues to go the way it is with the pollution problem that we have,” Newberry said. He said the Susquehanna River, the Conowingo Dam it flows through and pollution from Baltimore City continue to be major factors contributing to poor water quality.
“Shell is a very important issue. We’ve got 200 million bushels of shell sitting on Man O’ War Shoals,” Newberry said. “This governor has got to realize there is no damn reason (not to dredge for shell). That bar is now in a contaminated pollution zone because of Back River. You can’t harvest any oysters there. It’s covered in mud. It isn’t doing anything. You’re not catching any fish there. Dig it up and we can restore 15,000 acres of bottom in this Bay. And sure, some has to go to sanctuaries, some might have to go to aquaculture, (and) the majority, I hope, goes to the wild fishery.”
Based on the observations of commercial fishermen, species of fish like redfish and tarpan are migrating up the Bay, but surveys are based on 25-year-old practices. He cited other examples that require updated information.
“The crabs move, but the computer doesn’t,” he said. “Why aren’t there any oysters propagating north of the Choptank?”
DFA Counsel Charles “Chip” MacLeod of Chestertown is an attorney and a registered lobbyist. He urged attendees to “try to make some noise over there (in Annapolis) because we don’t know what it’s going to be like with this new administration.”
“Maybe this new administration will actually see how ridiculous this is: Saying we have this sanctuary system that’s thriving and producing. It’s not. It’s a false narrative, and the more we can do to try to help point that out, the better. How much we move the needle, I don’t know, but we’ve got to have this debate,” MacLeod said.
The success of wild fisheries is “a good thing,” he said. “That’s because of the way you all manage it. You know, we’ve always argued that a well-managed public oyster fishery is one of the best things for the Chesapeake Bay. And if they would finally address the Conowingo factor and the Susquehanna River and the pollution coming out of Baltimore City — everyone now knows they’re the biggest problem. And look how well the fisheries, somehow, are still doing with all the regulation and all the BS,” he said.
“So, be as united as you can on a few issues, and let’s help our representatives in Annapolis. We want to be careful with the time we spend, the resources we spend trying to get these messages out,” MacLeod said.
As for the war chest to fund the lobbying effort, DFA board member Chucky White of Kent County Watermen’s Association asked attendees, “Does anybody in this room think what you do for a living isn’t worth at least $300 a year?”
Newberry elaborated, explaining that lobbyists make a minimum of $100,00 a year, and MacLeod does a lot of pro bono work and gets “a minimal paycheck because he feels for what we’re doing. If we had the watermen all pay $300 once a year, every watermen in the state would give us over half a million dollars,” he said.
Delmarva Fisheries Association Inc. is a section 501(c)(6) fisheries trade association, affiliated with Southeastern Fisheries Association. It has about 2,500 members, of which 80% are area watermen and waterwomen. Newberry isn’t compensated for his leadership role.
“Just to give you some perspective, when we go over to Annapolis, we’re working (with less than) a $100,000 a year budget,” Newberry said. “When I see Allison Colden (of CBF) sitting across the table from me, you know what I see? $32.8 million. That’s what she’s got behind her, and that’s for staff and everything.”
“And that’s what the problem is. We’re going to a football game, guys, wearing a tutu and a badminton racket,” Newberry said. “And we’re doing a pretty good job. We’re holding our own, but we need the push behind us.”
The only “waterwoman” in the room spoke up toward the end of the meeting. “Guys, what they’re saying is, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, that’s all we see in the paper,” said Rachel Fazenbaker of Denton. “All we see on the news, they’re bashing us: Watermen are this, watermen are that; they’re destroying the Bay. I’m all for kicking out 300 bucks to shine some light on what we actually do.”
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