Oystermen Urge Support of Dredging Bill


ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 18, 2010) - As Grant Corbin testified to a House of Delegates committee Wednesday, he held up a rusty metal plate about the size of a dining tray.

"If this is the devil, then I'm not scared of the devil," he said.

Corbin, of Deal Island, was one of about 30 watermen who traveled to Annapolis in support of legislation that would allow the use of "devil divers" in oyster dredging.

The diver is a plate that fastens to the dredge and uses water pressure to keep the dredge on the bottom, Corbin said.

An oyster dredge weighs about 100 pounds, but watermen must use extra weight or a diver in water deeper than 18 feet to keep the dredge down, Corbin said.

The diver he brought with him weighed roughly 5 pounds. The extra weights that must be used in place of it could weigh an additional 100 pounds, he said.

The diver makes harvesting easier, especially for older oystermen, said Corbin, who has been working the water for 51 years.

Delegate D. Page Elmore, R-Somerset, sponsored the bill. He told the House Environmental Matters Committee the bill "does not expand power dredging in any way, shape or form."

The General Assembly began legislating devil divers in the early 2000s, said Tom O'Connell, director of the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service. The most recent bill allowing the device expired just before the oyster season started last year, but officials didn't realize it until too late, O'Connell said.

The sunset provision had been written into the previous bill because there was no information available at the time about environmental impacts of devil divers, O'Connell said.

But in 2007, department officials showed that where power dredging is used, devil divers do not increase environmental effects, he said. In some cases, the diver may even reduce the environmental impacts of dredging, he said.

Power dredging is only allowed in certain areas of the Chesapeake Bay, mainly below the Choptank River, O'Connell said.

In January, more than 150 watermen turned out in support of a bill that would protect their right to use power dredges and another device—patent tongs—in the designated areas. Environmental officials, including O'Connell, opposed the bill because they say power dredging can be harmful in certain areas.

"We are supportive of power-dredge-type gear," he said Wednesday, "as long as the department retains the ability to regulate dredging."

Corbin believes power dredging helps the oyster population and, as an oysterman, has a stake in protecting the shellfish.

"We're not going to destroy nothing, because it's our living," he said. "If we don't catch oysters or crabs ... our family's not going to eat."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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