Posted by Gerald Winegrad.
As we celebrate the Christmas season and anticipate the coming New Year with family and friends, my thoughts have turned inward. Now in my mid-60’s, I think deep thoughts of the way things used to be and how radically things have changed. Sadly, as I reflect on the Chesapeake Bay and its mighty rivers and its many streams, I see the results of the slow but ongoing degradation and poisoning of this natural legacy.
I think back to stories from my grandfather whose family were Eastern Shore watermen and farmers. He would speak to me about oystering in the winter and crabbing in the summer when they crabbed just to keep up equipment, selling big Jimmies for 25 cents a bushel as the real money was in oystering. I think of an early fishing trip on the Bay near Annapolis catching a boat load of hardheads (croakers) with my dad, uncle, and their friends. I remember summers as a young teen fishing with my friend Michael Bailey around downtown Annapolis, catching perch, spot, sunfish, and an occasional eel that I would sell for 60 cents each to an Italian restaurant owner who loved fried eels. We never ate them.
My family would go on frequent summer outings, swimming in the Bay and picnicking with my mom’s fried chicken. In the winter, Annapolis harbor and city dock area would be totally full with oyster boats and I would see the buy boats from Baltimore just off shore buying and loading hundreds of bushels of oysters from watermen. Several oyster-packing houses still thrived in Annapolis. Bay grasses—which we called seaweed then—were so thick that my friend Michael Leddy’s small boat got caught in a huge swath in Round Bay near Severna Park one hot summer day and we lost the propeller when the cotter pin was sheared off, caught in the thick mat.
Even the Annapolis market house was busy with two oyster shucking places to eat in or take out. Those raw oysters were my treat after working and going to law school back in the 60’s. While I was serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War at the other end of the Bay in Norfolk, my family spent much time catching crabs on the Lafayette River not far from the Norfolk Naval Station where I was assigned. We hosted crab feasts and had family and friends from all over the Chesapeake region visit us to go crabbing and eat crabs. We even would haul a bushel of nice ones home to Annapolis on occasion and once at a stop half way home some escaped and we were chasing them around the parking lot.
Now, my childhood friends Michael Bailey and Michael Leddy are dead. So too is much of my natural heritage as no one in my family that I know of works the water for a living. The Bay’s toxic mix of pollutants from farms, development, sewerage, coal fired power plants, and motor vehicles causes serious skin infections in humans and their dogs. The oyster fishery has collapsed, as has the shad fishery and the soft shell clam fishery. We came close to seeing the blue crab fishery collapse.
There are no oyster boats or buy boats at City dock in Annapolis, only fancy pleasure craft. There are no oyster packing houses in Annapolis or on all of the Western Shore in Maryland. Many rockfish have cancerous lesions and there are public health advisories about mercury and other contaminants for rockfish and many other Bay species. Proud Smith Islanders I went out with scraping for soft crabs now have moved off the Island to work at a state prison. They will never return to their roots making a living off the water. A way of life is dissolving along with the health of the Bay.
That this sad destruction of a cherished and thriving estuary has happened in my lifetime is both depressing and hard to believe, but I have seen it. I still live on the Bay near Annapolis, still catch crabs and do a little fishing, and love watching the waterfowl, Bald Eagles, Ospreys, other birds, and other wildlife just about every day. It’s like I am on a vacation and my wife and I love it here.
I can wake to the site of an Osprey and its shrill calls from my bed and this is a priceless pleasure that I never take for granted. On December 24th with all Ospreys having migrated south, I looked out on my creek and there was a Bald Eagle finishing a breakfast of fresh duck on the ice.
The comeback of Ospreys and Bald Eagles offers me a sliver of hope for the Bay, as these birds were in real trouble. The eagle was federally listed as endangered and with the ban on DDT, both species are thriving.
Why can’t we do the same for the Bay? Of course it’s not that simple but we absolutely know what has to be done to turn around the severe degradation of this magnificent ecosystem. The real question is are people still connected enough to force public officials to act to make the tough decisions to save the Bay? Does the political will exist to take on the polluting special interests and to reduce our own pollution?
I am not sure.