03/07/2011 06:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is It Worth Cleaning the Chesapeake If There Are No More Watermen?

Let's talk about an endangered species. I could talk about the Delmarva Fox Squirrel (Acipenser brevirostrum) or even the Bog Turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii); instead I want to focus on the Eastern Shore Commercial Fisherman (Piscator orientali litore). It is impossible to discuss cleaning the Chesapeake Bay without mentioning watermen. There are no government agencies to protect the Piscator orientali litore: Agriculture (USDA) protects farmers, Interior (DOI) only protects industries that pay royalties to the US -- oil drilling, lumber, coal and natural gas, and Commerce (DOC) protects American business abroad. The EPA, NOAA, and the DOI's Fish and Wildlife service only regulate fishermen, not protect them. Commercial fishing, and in particular small fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay, are plum out of luck.

Now you might say: "Well, that's OK." The Chesapeake really isn't a federal matter. This is the opinion of the American Farm Bureau Federation espoused in its recently filed lawsuit. Of course, the Farm Bureau's concern is that federal regulation of the Bay might (translation, "will") affect farmers and set some sort of precedent, perhaps along the Mississippi. As I said before, NO government agency or large NGO protects local fishermen.

Furthermore, you might say there is no one protecting the Chesapeake Bay. The first Chesapeake Bay Commission was established 31 years ago and depending on your metric you could say not much has been accomplished in at least the last 10 years. As a confirmation of this, EPA wants to step in and regulate the Chesapeake Bay; hence, the Farm Bureau lawsuit.

Anything as well funded (e.g., $58 million for just oyster restoration since 1990) as the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, that's gone on for so long without resolution, has powerful forces that prefer the status quo.

I think we should forget about restoring the Chesapeake to its former glory. I know that the states of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the three states causing the largest pollution loadings, have done little in the last 10 years to further reduce pollution. They might disagree, but I demur.
Let's look at the track record:
31 years with little accomplished;
• Few controls placed on runoff from farmers, chicken farms, and suburban fertilizer usage (urban runoff keeps increasing);
• Little coordination of Menhaden (feeder fish) harvesting as they go up the Chesapeake.
• Open warfare between small local fishermen and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on commercial fishing regulations.

The only thing I see wrong with this is the fact that we are not honest about the situation. Runoff loads from Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania can only be controlled by affecting homeowners, chicken farms and farmers. These are all important constituencies. Virginia has little interest in impacting the 300 jobs affected by reducing Menhaden fishing, a critical feeder fish for the Chesapeake, or stopping aggressive crab trapping. People come out on the weekends and swim, boat, and fish. The only real victim is the small Eastern Shore fisherman who has to deal with regulations that make earning a living nearly impossible.

Baltimore, Annapolis and local Eastern Shore papers are filled with news of gill net violations for catching rockfish (i.e., striped bass). The fact is that it is illegal to use gill nets anchored at the bottom of the Bay. The nets are supposed to hang vertically and catch the fish as they naturally swim. This year rockfish are running deep. The floating gill nets just don't work that well for deep fish.

There are similar stories about oysters on the Eastern Shore. The bottom line is that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is enforcing the law. The State Legislature needs to get its arms around a solution that preserves some semblance of the industry that is the real reason we want to cleanup the Chesapeake.

EPA talks a great deal about environmental justice. In "EPA speak" this means the protection of minorities and lower income families disenfranchised from the regulatory (e.g., siting of landfills and factories) process. Seems to me that what is going on right now is the disenfranchisement of the local fisherman from the regulatory process. Biologists and regulators are trying to save the Chesapeake Bay, but in doing so they are endangering the local waterman to such a degree that by the time the Bay is saved the fisherman will be gone.

Eventually, the states impacting the Chesapeake will declare victory. The Chesapeake Bay will be a large national park, with a marine highway up the center for container ships bringing goods from Asia and Europe to Baltimore. People will swim, boat, and do recreational fishing. There will be docents in small towns along the Eastern Shore of the Bay explaining how the Chesapeake was, at one time, the richest source of fishing on the East Coast. They will be able to see models of the boats local watermen used and even visit some preserved homes of fishermen. There just won't be any fishermen. The Piscator orientali litore will be extinct.