- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 9, 2003

Let's go over this one more time and see if it makes more sense than it did a week ago. Somebody at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is agreeing with commercial oystermen who say that because the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population is at the edge of a total collapse, they should be allowed to dredge what's left of them with power equipment not wooden tongs because it would actually benefit the oysters.
No, this is not a misprint. You're reading it correctly.
On Jan.31, the Baltimore Sun's Tom Horton, who knows as much about the Chesapeake Bay as anybody, reported, "Faced with the most dismal oyster catch on record, Maryland has opened five areas of the Chesapeake Bay to dredging by watermen's power boats. Natural resources officials say they authorized the change in an emergency regulation [at the] urging of watermen and legislators, who argue that it will increase this year's harvest and rehabilitate oyster bars that are smothered in silt."
In a move of resignation to this nutty-sounding plan, one high-ranging DNR official seemed to say, "So what?"
Eric Schwaab, the Department of Natural Resources fisheries director, said the winter power dredging was permitted because there wouldn't be a big downside anyway.
He told Horton that "for all our years of oyster restoration programs, and a lot of successes, we're obviously not moving in the right direction. It's almost a case where we might as well pull out all the stops. We don't see that we have a lot to lose."
Because of its super effectiveness, power dredging has been severely restricted for more than 100 years. Roger Newell, an oyster scientist at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratory, said, "Now we're down to historic lows, and we're changing the rules to harvest more oysters. It's exactly the wrong way to go."
And what about the claim that the power dredges actually will help oyster habitat? Said Newell: "We don't know how much upside there'll be, other than to help out watermen."
Meanwhile, Sherm Baynard of the Coastal Conservation Association/Maryland wants to know where the scientific support is for this dredging nonsense. After all, couldn't a grade schooler figure out the tomfoolery that is being perpetrated? Here we have a bunch of foxes who say that it will benefit the chickens if they're allowed to go into the hen house and kill most of them.
That is what is happening here.
Even the most ardent supporter of the Chesapeake's commercial segment must be skeptical when he hears a waterman say that the health of the resource is his first concern. Anybody with an ounce of sense knows it's the dollar he's worried about, not the resource.
How soon we forget. Take the year 1985, when the state of Maryland was forced to close all tidal waters to the removal of striped bass. Why? The striper fishery was about to collapse. It was so bad that some conservationists asked the federal government to declare the striped bass an endangered species. Things got that serious.
The disappearance of the rockfish, as middle Atlantic fishermen call the stripers, could mostly be blamed on commercial overfishing. A 5-year moratorium showed what happens when we leave a resource to its own devices to heal itself. The rockfish rebounded. It returned and multiplied in such great numbers that the Maryland moratorium became the conservation success story of the decade.
New regulations and reduced catches for the commercial and recreational segment should see to it that the stripers will always be around, but don't bet on it. Already, in the Potomac River where wintertime catches of 10- and 12-pound rockfish once were common, local catch-and-release sport anglers now say they're happy if they see a 3-pounder. The bigger fish again have been netted into oblivion.
Then there are the blueclaw crabs, the top cash crop in the Chesapeake Bay. Anyone who cares about this resource knows that the recent minimum size increase from 5 to 5 inches for hardshell crabs can only help increase the population, which will benefit all. But the commercial crabbers already are lobbying to return to the 5-inch-width minimum because they can sell more crabs that way.
Yes, and if you'll allow me to use a machine gun during deer season, I'll probably have more venison in my freezer. Or what about a punt gun that throws so much shot into the air, one firing could result in 20 geese or 30 ducks coming down. However, along with market hunters these guns were outlawed many years ago. Why? Too many waterfowl were being killed and their numbers declined. Something had to be done.
Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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