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As Bay's Health Improves, Fishermen Wait For Easing Of Harvest Limits

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Fishermen on the Chesapeake Bay say they've been seeing the results of increased bay health in recent years. 
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Fishermen on the Chesapeake Bay say they've been seeing the results of increased bay health in recent years. 

There has been an abundance of scientific reports released in recent weeks documenting state and federal efforts to clean up pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But for a more institutional look at the health of the bay, the waterway's fishermen are a primary source.

Amid rows of fishing nets set out in a field like crops, Wade Self and John Gaskins stand against a biting wind, fixing tears and preparing for spring when Self will set out pound nets, a kind of fish trap, in the Chesapeake Bay.

"We call these broken bars," Self explains. "What he's doing, he's actually putting a patch in. I cut the old out and he's putting another piece back in it."

Scientists tasked with cleaning the bay point to some of last year's small successes, including less pollution entering the bay, more baby crabs and a stable rockfish population. The bay's suffocating dead zone that occurs each year was much smaller than 2011.

While they aren't scientists, bay fishermen are the boots on the ground. When oxygen levels are low they know it. 

"Where the bay meets the Potomac my pound net was there and we did have, for two weeks, red tide," he says, referring to an algae bloom that is harmful to marine life. "I never really saw any dead fish in my nets, but what happens when the bad water comes it brings the flounders to your nets. And the crabs came out of the water. To get out of the water, they crawled out of the nets."

The baymen also see firsthand when fish populations are coming back. That's why Self and his fellow fishermen don't always agree with the scientists, especially when it comes to limits on fishing certain species. State Fisheries commissioners in December cut menhaden harvests by 20 percent forcing layoffs of fishermen throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.

"We saw an increase in menhaden and we saw an increase in rock[fish] and it's kind of … confusing and alarming that those two species, rock and menhaden are the ones that's been cut back when we're seeing an increase over the past two or three years," Self says. "But again that's the scientists, that's the call, but it seems like it needs to be a lot more research done."

As a result of the limits, in a few months, Gaskins will leave his family to fish off the coast of Louisiana where there are no catch limits.

"You gotta do what you gotta do," he says. "The way the economy is, you can't do but so much. It's like 12 or 15 of us, we gotta all leave home and pack up."

Gaskins will leave in March and return in November. He plans to set aside enough money to come back home once a month to see his family.

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