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Watermen angered by lack of action on Mallows Bay sanctuary

Don Shomette

Commercial watermen who fish the Potomac River were shocked and angry last week when the Maryland-Virginia authority that regulates them did nothing about federal plans for a marine sanctuary at Mallows Bay.

The Potomac River Fisheries Commission could not agree on limits to the sanctuary, which watermen fear could extend to where they set nets for blue catfish, tong for oysters and trap crabs.

Richard Rich, a St. Mary's County waterman, said NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has issued vague rules in its sanctuary documents, like the one that forbids large anchors.

"Well, who’s to determine what’s a large anchor,” he wondered. “In my eyes, I use some pretty large anchors in my fishing gear and to some people these might be gigantic anchors. To me they're just big anchors."

Mallows Bay, on the Maryland side of the river in Charles County, is the graveyard of a fleet of merchant ships sunk there after World War I.

Maryland asked NOAA to make the bay a marine sanctuary in 2014. NOAA held hearings in March on proposals that could sharply restrict commercial fishing in anywhere from 18 square miles of the river to 100 square miles.

Martin Gary, executive secretary for the commission, said he’s been getting an earful from watermen who are "unified in a way that I have rarely seen."

"The commission took no action in the face of this and I think everyone is trying to digest what that means."

The question that sticks in watermen’s minds is will the federal government take over fishing management on the Potomac? Virginia and Maryland Attorneys General say there's no indication of that. And even if they try Maryland's governor could veto any attempt because Maryland controls the river.

But Commissioner Ida Hall, who is also a waterman, isn't so sure of that. She said NOAA would “have the right to change the management plan and that's what scares me.”

Rich said watermen met with Virginia Congressman Rob Wittman who informally said he's opposed to the plan, but is still considering all sides. Meanwhile, Rich is calling Maryland congressmen to set up more meetings.

NOAA will continue to take comment on the proposal. For more information, go to NOAA’s website. http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/mallows-bay/

Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

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