Out and About (Sort of): Comeback and Setback by Howard Freedlander

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Good news came about two weeks ago with the announcement that aerial scientific surveys showed a 27 percent increase in acreage of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake Bay. Why does this matter when some folks at this time of year might wish they had less grass to cut on their property?

Bay grasses are a barometer of health for the estuary that we love and cherish. They need sunlight to survive. When the water is dark and gloomy with algae blooms or sediment, they struggle to exist. Dependent on clean water, the grasses also help clean it up. They absorb nutrients that sustain algae blooms and filter out sediment.

At the risk of simplifying the significance of abundant Submerged Underwater Vegetation (SUV), I suggest that an environment featuring healthy grasses provides a better, healthier home for oysters, crabs and other species by offering food and habitat. They also impede erosion.

The most recent report produced by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimates that bay grasses now exceed 100,000 acres. The goal of the bay restoration project is to grow grasses on 180,000 acres of bottom.

Why does this somewhat esoteric information please me?

One, controversial and gutsy actions by government officials have contributed to a healthier Chesapeake Bay. Republican Governor Robert L. Ehrlich successfully promoted a “flush tax,” which over the past 13 years has provided funding for the enhancement of existing sewage treatment plants and construction of state-of-art ones. Consequently, water quality has improved.

The ‘rain tax” imposed by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley forced local jurisdictions to update their stormwater systems to filter out pollutants. And, yes, water quality has improved.

Two, property owners and farmers in the Bay watershed began using best practices in terms of limiting or eliminating the use of fertilizer. Farmer established buffers along rivers and streams.

Three (my last point, though there are more related to land use), policymakers and citizens began to pay attention to scientific research produced by Horn Point Lab in Cambridge, the Chesapeake Biological Lab in Solomons Island and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester, VA and to persistent advocacy by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Policy and politics aligned. Concern for, and about the Chesapeake Bay preoccupied government leaders, scientists, advocacy groups and the recreational and commercial users of the Bay.

A recent editorial in the Baltimore Sun opined that “not every voter likes every regulation and fee, of course, but it’s clear a majority favors clean water and an upgraded Chesapeake Bay. And Marylanders understand that such improvements don’t happen by accident, they happen because of the little sacrifices we are willing to make from paying a little more for sewer service to “smart growth” limits on land development, and, yes, a tax to clean up stormwater runoff.”

Now that I’ve written about a comeback, I must address a setback. The Trump Administration’s decision to award guest worker visas by a lottery system, instead of first-come, first-served, threaten the economic viability of crab-packing houses in Dorchester County. In a recent interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Harry Phillips, owner of Russell Hall Seafood in Fishing Creek in Dorchester County, said this about the shortage of H-2B workers:

“Well, we have 50 visas every year, and probably 42 of those are crab-pickers, and we have a couple of guys that help us on the docks, unload the crabs and steam the crabs. But without these workers, we are literally out of business as far as doing any business with crab meat. We tried everything to hire Americans, advertising right now, as we speak, in the papers, and not one person has applied. So a lot of people are going to be touched by this as far as being of work or receiving a lesser income. It’s kind of like a domino effect. It just trickles all through the community—the stores, the railway. So, many, many hundreds of people are going to be affected without these crab pickers.”

According to NPR’s Michel Martin, Congressman Andy Harris said that immigration officials have announced they will approve 15,000 new guest worker visas. This news didn’t console Harry Phillips. The visas will be awarded by lottery and cover a whole wide range of workers, including those who pick apples, peaches and strawberries.

I’m unhappy that Congressman Harris and Senators Cardin and Van Hollen have not done more to alleviate this crisis. For years, the determined, feisty and effective Sen. Barbara Mikulski successfully fought for guest worker visas. Crab houses stayed in business. People had jobs. Maryland crabmeat was sold throughout the United States. Seasonal workers did jobs that Americans didn’t, as Phillips said in his NPR interview.

I implore Harris, Cardin and Van Hollen to keep crab houses in business. It’s a Maryland enterprise that warrants a full political press.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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