A new group has emerged to speak for the seafood industry in contentious Chesapeake Bay fisheries issues, and it’s already being heard in Maryland on oyster restoration.
The Delmarva Fisheries Association formed last year with the stated intent of bringing together watermen, restaurant owners, packing houses, oyster farmers and boat captains.
Capt. Robert Newberry, the association’s president and founder, used to oyster in the Upper Bay and is now a charter boat captain and a hunting guide. He said he wanted to form a group that would unite the seafood industry.
One of their first priorities, he said, was getting Maryland’s governor to take a closer look at the oyster reef construction project in the Tred Avon, which is part of an effort to restore bivalves in three of the state’s tributaries that will cost tens of millions of dollars. All three have been designated sanctuaries, off-limits to commercial harvesting.
Newberry, along with Talbot Watermen Association President Bunky Chance and Maryland Watermen’s Association President Robert T. Brown Sr., got an audience with Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford and persuaded him to halt the project — after the Department of Natural Resources had declined the group’s request to do so.
The DNR and the Corps are set to re-evaluate the project in July, after the state completes a review of its sanctuary program.
“We said to the lieutenant governor, ‘Maybe we need to explain spending millions of dollars in taxpayer money,’” Newberry said. “What’s wrong with that? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. That’s why the governor did what he did, and we applaud him for it. This is being done by a (federal) government that has put us $19 trillion dollars in debt. What is the harm in waiting six months?”
Both Newberry and his new group have close ties to the Clean Chesapeake Coalition. Delmarva Fisheries Association’s executive director is Sarah D. Sheppard, an attorney with Funk and Bolton which also represents the Clean Chesapeake Coalition and works closely with coalition founder Charles D. “Chip” MacLeod, who is also a member of Funk and Bolton.
The DFA formed as an affiliate of the Florida-based Southeastern Fisheries Association, which has been around since 1952 and has about 300 members. They range from independent shrimp fishermen to multimillion-dollar businesses, said Robert P. Jones, who has been the group’s executive director since 1964.
Newberry, MacLeod and Sheppard met Jones at a Cracker Barrel restaurant off Interstate 81 in Virginia and became affiliates of the Southeastern group after a handshake, Jones recalled.
“Rob and I have been talking for a year and a half. He was chomping at the bit to get things going, Jones said. “I told him, ‘you really need to have a goal. You need to have a transparent organization.’ ”
With nearly 50 years at the helm, Jones said, he’s learned a thing or two about survival in a state where the recreational fishery is powerful. “What saves us, and what will save anyone else, is science. Science will set you free. Don’t mess with the science. Let scientists do what they do best,” he said.
Jones said he has scientists advise and review his policies, but keeps them anonymous to protect their jobs.
Sheppard said the DFA will use “science and facts to promote the cleaning of the Bay.”
She said the association doesn’t have its website ready yet. And, Newberry said the group wasn’t ready to announce its board of directors or its members, but would be in the coming weeks.
Brown, who has led the watermen’s association since the death of its founder, Larry Simns, in 2013, said he didn’t object to a new association forming. But, he added, “I think we have done a very good job of covering all the bases for the watermen of the state of Maryland.” Brown, who lives in Southern Maryland, has also been active with the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
Both the Clean Chesapeake Coalition and the DFA support power dredging, which entails hiring watermen to lift oysters out of the Bay, then place them back on bars. The DNR’s study shows that planting hatchery-raised oyster seed on clean shell is more effective than dredging when restoring oyster populations, and has resisted opening more of the Chesapeake to the practice.
Both groups also want the department to dredge old oyster shell from Man-O-War shoal, a historic shellfish bar in the Upper Bay that several watermen and many recreational fishermen say should be left alone. Critics of the plan say that dredging the reef would drive off finfish now drawn to it, and could kill the remaining bivalves there.
The Clean Chesapeake Coalition has collected $25,000 apiece from several rural counties to lobby in Annapolis for adjustments to the requirements under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, more commonly known as the Bay’s pollution diet. The coalition has pressed to repeal stormwater management fees that the state’s largest counties were required to impose.
It also filed to intervene in relicensing the Conowingo Dam, contending that the hydroelectric facility is a major source of sediment fouling the Chesapeake.
Newberry has run afoul of Maryland’s fishing regulations on several occasions. Since 2008, court records show that he has either pleaded guilty or been found guilty in five cases brought by the Natural Resources Police. Among the charges: possessing undersize oysters and striped bass; fishing without a license; possessing striped bass larger than 36 inches; and fishing for striped bass without allocation to do so.
Newberry called the citations “minor infractions” and said that, in the striped bass cases, he only had one fish that violated the limit. He added that watermen face intense scrutiny and that there are “very few watermen who have worked every day who haven’t had at least a dozen charges.”
Newberry worked with Funk and Bolton when he was leader of another group, the Harvesters Land and Sea Coalition. That group hired Clean Chesapeake Coalition attorney Jefferson Blomquist to represent Larry “Boo” Powley and Burl Lewis, two watermen who sued the DNR over menhaden catch restrictions. They lost the case. The Harvesters is not in good standing to operate in Maryland because, according to the attorney general’s office, it failed to file a personal property tax return for several years and did not request any extension.
Newberry said he has turned the Harvesters group over to Powley and hasn’t kept track of it recently. Of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, he said: “We kind of work together on certain issues. I do a lot of research for them. We have got the same goals. The main goal is to get oysters back in the water.”