Lawrence W. "Larry" Simns, who formed the Maryland Watermen's Association and turned it into a powerful voice for the state's commercial fishermen, died March 14. He was 75.
He was born Sept. 14, 1937. He was the son of George Clifton Simns, a waterman and part-time barber, and his wife, Rebecca. He was raised in the small Eastern Shore fishing village of Rock Hall, where lived his entire life.
Simns began his work on the Bay after graduating from Rock Hall High School in 1956, as a commercial waterman and later as a charter boat captain. In 1973, with some fish stocks — including his favorite, the American shad — in distress, and the health of the Bay clearly in decline, Simns became the founding president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, which he led until his death.
In that role, he was a passionate voice representing watermen at all levels of government. The boy who grew up yearning to make his living on the water found himself meeting presidents — including both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — governors and senators.
When the late Sen. Charles McC. Mathias toured the Chesapeake to learn about the Bay's health in 1973, he shared sodas and crackers with Simns during one of his stops. That tour ultimately led to the modern Bay cleanup effort.
Gov. Martin O'Malley issued a statement saying, "It is difficult to picture the Maryland Watermen's Association without Larry at the helm or to imagine our watermen's community or seafood industry without his leadership. It is impossible to put into words the deep personal loss being felt by so many across our state, including our staff at the Department of Natural Resources, where Larry was a revered partner for so many years."
He represented state watermen on numerous committees and panels, including the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Maryland Tidal Fish Advisory Committee and the Commercial Fishermen of America Association, among others.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski also praised Simns for his candid, straightforward advice over the years. "Larry stood sentry for the watermen of the Chesapeake Bay for over 40 years and courageously carried their banner into the 21st century. He fought to preserve their traditions and their opportunity to work on the water like their forefathers.
"He also had the tough challenge of helping them navigate a tough economy and difficult environmental factors facing our beloved Bay. He did not have an easy job."
As head of the Watermen's Association, he had to represent the sometimes competing factions of fishermen from different regions of the Bay, as well as those who focused on harvesting different species.
Nonetheless, he was able to work through their differences, and present a common front for watermen over the last four decades. During that period, the Bay experienced the decline and comeback of striped bass and blue crabs, the decline of shad, and a rebound of yellow perch.
He sought to protect watermen from regulations that could harm their livelihoods. He was aware of the sting regulations could have on watermen, recounting in an interview last year with Bay Journal columnist Tom Horton, the devastating impact the striped bass moratorium in the late 1980s had on Rock Hall. "We lost our charter boats, our winter netting, a generation of young watermen, our ice houses…the whole infrastructure; it broke our back," he said.
Nonetheless, Simns acknowledged the moratorium had worked. Over the years, he supported limits where he felt science had justified them and tried to forge consensus with agencies where he could. In recent years, he was deeply involved with the Blue Crab Design Committee, a novel effort with the state, environmentalists and watermen aimed at giving crabbers much more control of how they fish, within an overall quota that scientists determined.
While his defense of watermen often left him at odds with conservation groups, they sometimes found common ground on other fronts, such as battling pollution that degraded the Bay's waters. "He was able to 'agree to disagree' on some things and still work together on others better than anyone I know, and that trait served Maryland's watermen and the Chesapeake Bay very well all those years," Bill Goldsborough, director of fisheries for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, wrote in a blog entry.
Simns, a fourth-generation waterman, often worried that because of changes in the Bay, young people were losing their ability to work on the water. In the March issue of the Waterman's Gazette, the association's newspaper, he urged watermen to mentor the younger generation. "I know it's not easy but as an industry, a culture, and a tradition, we must keep it alive," he wrote.
Last year, Simns wrote an autobiography, "The Best of Times on the Chesapeake Bay: An Account of a Rock Hall Waterman," in collaboration with Robert Rich, Jr., which focuses largely on the 1960s and '70s.
"I want to leave a record of the abundance I have known, so people will have an idea of what we need to get back to. I don't want people to save this Bay, because it's not good enough," he said in the Bay Journal interview last year. "We need to restore it."
In addition to his mother, Simns is survived by his wife, Carolyn Simns, a sister, three children, five stepchildren, 12 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.