Bill Goldsborough was the perfect person to build an environmental education outpost on Maryland’s Smith Island. With a love of fishing and an environmental science degree from the University of Virginia, the young Chesapeake Bay Foundation staffer took to the marshy isolation of Tylerton. He built relations between the group known for its “Save the Bay” bumper stickers and the crabbers and oystermen who weren’t quite sure what that phrase meant for them.
Islanders who at first suspected that Goldsborough was an undercover game warden came to accept that he was no man of the law. And after two idyllic years as a resident, Goldsborough returned to the mainland, but continued to be a frequent visitor — until the 1990s. Then, the islanders’ beloved CBF educator began pressing for harvest restrictions on blue crabs, the mainstay of Smith Island. Islanders put up signs condemning the Bay Foundation. And Goldsborough decided not to return. For 16 years, he hasn’t.
“It’s a little bit of a heartache that comes with that, because I still consider my two years on Smith Island to be the best years of my life,” he said recently. “I probably could have gone back, but I felt like I shouldn’t.”
And now, the Bay Foundation’s senior fisheries scientist is packing up his binders and his fishing gear and heading to Florida for retirement. In his 35-year career, he has been in the thick of debate over how to maintain not just crabs but nearly every significant Bay species. He pushed for coastwide controls on striped bass, after Maryland’s moratorium on the species in the 1980s. He spoke up for river herring and shad, whose numbers are much diminished because of pollution, overfishing and blockages from dams. He fought for oyster sanctuaries, arguing that fisheries managers needed to consider their habitat and filtration value as well as dockside profits. Most recently, he has engaged in a running debate over the fate of menhaden, a little oily fish that no one eats but is incredibly important to the Bay, both economically and ecologically.
His resume lists service on just about every one of Maryland’s fishery management boards, as well as a suitcase full of plaques and certificates honoring his work — most recently the Capt. David H. Hart Award from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates fishing in coastal waters from Maine to Florida. The honor, the panel’s highest, recognizes his “outstanding efforts to improve marine fisheries.”
Goldsborough served on the commission from 1995 until June 2016, with one three-year gap. Former Republican Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich declined to re-appoint him in 2003. Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley returned Goldsborough to the interstate fisheries panel, where he remained until the current governor, Larry Hogan, a Republican, appointed a commercial fishing representative to take his place. But even during his hiatus during the Ehrlich administration, he stayed involved on the commission’s habitat committee and attended its meetings.
Committed to science
The laid-back Goldsborough, known for his fish shirts and love of Key West, said the award was a total surprise. But those who know him best say it shouldn’t have been. In a press release, the ASMFC called him “a persistent voice of reason in his commitment to science-based decision making.” He is the only person in commission history to receive all three of its internal awards.
“Bill was often the person that could cross the aisle and have a dialogue with the commercial fishing industry. And in the end, there seemed to be a better understanding of both sides, which always proved beneficial,” said Tom O’Connell, the former fisheries director for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and current director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Leetown Science Center in West Virginia. “Topic to topic, he’s really been able to represent the conservationist side of the story.”
A native Eastern Shoreman — with a road in Easton and a nearby creek named for his family — Goldsborough grew up fishing with his father in the waters of Talbot County. Will Baker, who is now president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was a young staffer there when he met the recent college graduate in 1978. Goldsborough, he said, was the right choice to start an education program on Smith Island — a place that wasn’t exactly a sure bet to be welcoming to a conservation group,
Goldsborough took to it, though, and even met his wife, Cathy, when she visited the island with a birding group.
He eventually left, he said, to attend graduate school and move ahead in his career, becoming more involved in fisheries policy. In 1980, armed with a master’s in ecology, he landed at the Bay Foundation in Annapolis, where he has worked ever since.
Almost immediately, Goldsborough became involved in the striped bass wars. In 1984, rockfish had reached a low point in the Chesapeake and elsewhere along the East Coast. Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, which made the ASMFC’s management plans for the species legally enforceable. From 1985–1990, Maryland enacted a moratorium on fishing for striped bass. The move prompted conservation action up and down the coast, and is credited with saving the species. But it deprived a lot of fishermen of a major source of income. Many then crabbed later into the season, putting more pressure on that resource.
By the 1990s, amid signs of growing fishing pressure on the Bay’s blue crabs, Goldsborough began advocating for measures to protect them. His preferred approach was a migration corridor to shield the crabs as they swam down the Bay to spawn at its mouth. Worried about declines in spawning female crabs, Maryland imposed emergency restrictions in the fall of 1995, shortening the crabbing season by six weeks.
The restrictions, coupled with a disease-driven decline in winter oystering, gave added impetus to a gradual exodus already under way from Smith Island. Several watermen took jobs at the Eastern Correctional Institution, a prison near Princess Anne, said Duke Marshall, who grew up on the island in a waterman family and still owns the Tylerton store. Some eventually moved to the mainland; their sons and daughters grew up away from the water life and never returned to it.
Many of Goldsborough’s old Smith Island friends blamed him and the foundation. A sign went up on the island the spring after the imposition of emergency catch restrictions that read: “Smith Island’s way of life will soon be over due to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Please do not support them.” The sign stayed up for several years, and it’s come and gone since then, according to Baker. In 1995, someone set fire to a shed that the foundation had been using as an office. It had been Goldsborough’s living quarters just 16 years earlier. No one was ever charged.
Baker said the foundation doesn’t take the signs personally. The group gets blamed, he said, for many state fisheries decisions, whether or not they’re involved in them. But in this case, he said, they were involved, and the decision took a toll on his longtime friend, in part because of his many close friendships there.
“There’s no question that Bill Goldsborough puts science first, and he’s willing to challenge a close friend if he believes in the science,” Baker said. “To me, it’s admirable to the extreme.”
Bi-State Blue Crab Committee
A few years after the restrictions were put in place, Maryland and Virginia agreed to jointly fund research into the crab population’s abundance and how to sustain it. The Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee has waxed and waned — for a few years, Virginia declined to fund it, and Maryland wouldn’t, either. But its members, including Goldsborough, were able to advise the states on steps to take together to preserve the population. In 2008, the states again put in restrictions to reduce harvest pressure, including eliminating Virginia’s winter dredge fishery.
Over the years, relations have improved between the foundation and the watermen. The groups are working together now to make Smith Island a tourist destination, and thousands of students have visited the island on environmental education trips.
“Bill did what he thought was best. Sometimes it affected our living, and we didn’t approve of it,” said longtime crabber Dwight Marshall. “I don’t think it’s anything personal or longstanding. We clashed heads, clashed ideas, but after awhile we straightened out.”
Goldsborough thinks he did the right thing for the resource, but he knows it hurt people.
“A lot of the staff for the Bay Foundation come back yearly,” Duke Marshall, Dwight’s son, said. “He’s the only one who hasn’t.”
Goldsborough’s oyster work has proven no less challenging. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation first used the word “moratorium” in the early 1990s. It’s still a word watermen don’t like to hear. The word “sanctuary” is barely better, though Goldsborough believes Maryland has come a long way in showing that oysters left alone can rebound and will not die or become silted over, as the watermen claimed.
Goldsborough is one of the founders of the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership, which grew out of a state-sponsored summit in 1993 on how to bring back bivalve stocks. The oyster populations, already compromised by poor water quality, habitat loss and overharvesting, had been ravaged by two diseases, MSX and Dermo. The “Oyster Roundtable” was an effort to forge an agreement among watermen, scientists and state fisheries managers on a restoration plan. It evolved into the modern-day partnership between the University of Maryland, which produces seed oysters and spat in a hatchery at Horn Point, and watermen, who help plant that seed — and get to harvest some of it.
Goldsborough occasionally tangled over the best course for oyster restoration with Larry Simns, longtime president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association until his death in 2013. But the two hashed out differences and moved forward, said Stephan Abel, the ORP’s executive director. “He put the species first and worked with the different groups in finding a balance that would work for everyone,” Abel said of Goldsborough.
Menhaden: more or less
One of the most difficult issues of the past decade has been menhaden. For years, recreational anglers, conservationists and some fisheries managers worried that the species was being overfished, though the science didn’t clearly show that. Many feared for other fish, notably striped bass, which depend on menhaden for a significant portion of their diet.
Then, in 2012, a scientific assessment found that menhaden were in trouble, and the ASMFC agreed to a 20 percent cut in the allowable commercial catch — the first coastwide reduction in menhaden harvest.
That cut would adversely affect Omega Protein Corp., which catches millions of pounds of menhaden using spotter planes and turns them into pet food, fatty acid pills and other products at its Reedville, VA, plant. It prompted Omega to idle three of its nine fishing vessels based in Virginia, putting 65 fishermen out of work. Maryland and Virginia watermen, who use menhaden to catch crabs and other fish, also suffered, as they had a hard time finding enough bait and paid more for it.
At the time, conservationists believed the science showed menhaden were at only 8 percent of their historic levels. Menhaden, they said, could either go the way of sturgeon and shad, for which there are no longer Bay fisheries, or follow the path of crabs and rockfish, where dangerously low levels prompted cuts and quotas that helped produce rebounds.
The 2012 meeting was so tense that Natural Resources Police officers stood at the ready in case things got out of control. Recreational fishermen insisted that the menhaden needed to be saved; Omega Protein workers and other union members shot back that they needed to keep their jobs. As fishermen at the commission table argued for a smaller cut, Goldsborough stood firm and unflappable, his usual position.
“If I feel a certain thing is the right action, I’ll stick to that,” Goldsborough said. “It’s sort of one of those situations where you feel like you’re doing OK if you’ve made everyone equally mad. You just have to be true to the science and true to your basic principles, and that stuff, you have to let it roll off your back.”
A new scientific assessment of menhaden has since reversed the grim findings of the earlier study, declaring the menhaden aren’t in such trouble after all. That’s prompted commercial fishing interests to push to restore the catch to what they’d been forced to give up four years ago.
Shortly after the Atlantic States fisheries panel honored Goldsborough in October, it voted to increase the harvest cap for menhaden by 6.45 percent. That was less than what the industry wanted. Goldsborough, who was back on the commission one last time as a substitute for Maryland Del. Dana Stein, argued against it. He said any increase in harvest should wait until the commission has figured out a new ecologically based catch limit for menhaden that looks at how many need to be left in the water so other fish have enough to eat. The ASMFC is working to come up with that limit, but it won’t be ready for consideration until next year. Only Pennsylvania and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sided with Goldsborough and voted to keep the cap unchanged.
Longtime waterman Billy Rice, chair of Maryland’s Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission, said Goldsborough’s menhaden stances do “not bother me in the least” — even though Rice has long represented fishing interests.
“Bill is not against commercial fishing. He is a great individual. He is erring on the side of caution,” Rice said. “There was nothing ever personal about any of Bill’s positions.”
Robert Newberry, head of the Delmarva Fisheries Association, praised Goldsborough as a “very good adversary,” but said he was frustrated with the foundation scientist’s push to maintain reduced menhaden harvests in the face of a new study saying they’re in no danger of overfishing.
“The Bay Foundation has an agenda,” Newberry said, “and that agenda is to protect fish through over-regulation.”
Goldsborough said he’s ready for personal time now, away from the fish wars. His wife, Cathy, has been patient for many years while he attended night and weekend fisheries meetings. Now, he said, he wants to travel with her. One place he wants to go: Smith Island, where Duke and Dwight Marshall said he’d be welcome any time.
“That’s on my mind,” Goldsborough said. “It’s something I’d definitely like to do.”