CAMBRIDGE – Rep. Frank Kratovil is diving into a key issue in his district, hoping to learn more about Chesapeake Bay oysters and efforts to save them.
Kratovil, D-Stevensville, went out on the Choptank River late Friday morning with some of Maryland’s watermen and environmental scientists to watch how they study and restore oysters.
The program Kratovil witnessed is Oyster Bar Rehab, part of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Waterman Work Program, which gives watermen a chance to earn some money while helping restore the bay.
The wind was chilly and the waves were choppy as Kratovil, in Wrangler jeans and a U.S. House of Representatives windbreaker, listened intently to oyster recovery scientists explain the anatomy of an oyster, how they’re dredged and how the filter-feeders clean the bay.
On board the 46-foot Captain Lady, Kratovil and officials from the Department of Natural Resources, the Oyster Recovery Partnership and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, watched the watermen at work dredging oysters, cleaning the silt off, and then returning them to the water.
Kratovil’s district consists of the entire Eastern Shore, so he represents a lot of the state’s watermen. But lately, that constituency hasn’t been doing so well.
Because of strict regulations placed on watermen in an effort to restore the bay and wildlife populations, a lot of watermen are out of work or at least are not making as much money as they used to.
Over the past 25 years, Maryland has lost 80 percent of its oyster bars, 80 percent of its oyster processing companies and 75 percent of its oyster harvesters, said a Kratovil media release. More than 1,500 watermen can no longer make a living from the Bay’s oyster population.
Kratovil, Democratic Senators Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin, and Gov. Martin O’Malley fought to get government money to these suffering watermen. But the watermen didn’t just want a handout, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science President Donald Boesch said. They wanted to work for their money.
So the watermen were put to work helping to restore the bay they knew so well from working on it for generations.
Kratovil said the program is a balance between helping an industry survive today and helping the bay survive for the future.
The program joins forces between those who economically benefit from the bay and those who work toward restoring it.
Bay scientists study and research the oyster populations, while the watermen go out on the bay to do the hands-on work, like dredging. Each group contributes its specialty for a common goal.
Before the program, a lot of the watermen and the scientists were at odds. The former needs the bay to put food on the table, while the latter wants to research, restore and preserve America’s largest estuary.
Now, because of the program, some on both sides are coming together.
“It helped to generate trust and respect between oystermen and scientists … now we’re out here working together,” said Don “Mutt” Meritt, the university’s Oyster Hatchery program director. “It’s a way they can help us and we can help them.”
Boesch said the program has helped change the watermen’s views about science and the bay.
Eddie Walters, a fifth generation watermen who now directs field operations for the Oyster Recovery Partnership, said the program is a “good fit” for oystermen and scientists.
“Watermen are very handy,” Walters said. “They do what they have to do to make ends meet.”