Watermen Find Bliss On The Bay Despite Challenges (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Watermen Find Bliss On The Bay Despite Challenges

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today our theme is Happiness and in this next part of the show we're going to meet people who found happiness, despite some big challenges. We'll spend time with a D.C. teen who overcame major trauma and landed a full tuition college scholarship. We'll also talk with a Maryland mom whose son's rare illness is helping her redefine happiness.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:31
First though, we'll head out on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the domain of the hard-working watermen. Watermen's lives seem to be getting more challenging each year, what with increasing pollution, dwindling supplies of fish and crabs and more and more catch limit regulations. But the waterman we'll meet next is staying positive against the odds. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson brings us his story.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:54
Robert T. Brown eases his 42-foot, bay-built fishing boat away from his property along St. Patrick's Creek in St. Mary's County, Md.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:01:03
So how many times have you been out on this same stretch of water?

MR. ROBERT T. BROWN

00:01:08
I don't know. I've been coming out of this creek since I was a teenager.

WILSON

00:01:12
The 63-year-old Brown, or Robert T., as his friends call him, is headed about five miles out towards the mouth of the Potomac River, to check on one of his fishing nets. And if you think 63 sounds a little old for a commercial fisherman, you're right, but only just. Brown is only a few years above the average age of a Maryland waterman. He says there are just not many young people signing up for a job that guarantees hard manual labor but doesn't offer health insurance.

BROWN

00:01:39
It's tough. It's a hard way. If you're not really raised on the water and get it in your blood it's--not nobody else really going into it.

WILSON

00:01:49
Brown says being a waterman is even tougher than it was when he got started on his own, about 40 years ago. But looking for another line of work just isn't an option.

BROWN

00:01:57
I've got a high school education, where am I going to go? And who wants to hire somebody that's 63 years old, who has no other experience than what we've done around here in the water business? You know, you don't have no other choice, really.

WILSON

00:02:12
Brown may not have a choice, but Mick Blackistone, the executive director of the Maryland Watermen's Association says the secret to how watermen like Brown are constantly adapting to changing conditions. It's a skill that's served them well for generations.

MR. MICK BLACKISTONE

00:02:25
Well, they're very good at rolling with the punches, that's for sure. They roll with whatever hits them because this is what they do. And this is what their fathers did, their grandfathers, the other men or women in the community. So a lot of them grew up with this.

WILSON

00:02:47
Back on the Potomac we've reached Brown's net. If you've never seen a pound net set up in the water before, the first glance can be a bit eerie. Most of the contraption is underwater. So from a distance all you can see is a series of telephone pole-sized logs poking out of the water like a wooden version of Stonehenge.

BROWN

00:03:04
When the fish swim up river, when they run into any obstacle, the nature of the fish is to come out and swim out deep to go around it.

WILSON

00:03:13
Pound nets take advantage of that instinct, funneling the fish into an enclosure as they swim away from shore.

WILSON

00:03:22
Brown's crew of two 20-somethings, Dusty Anderson (sp?) and Speedy Lyon (sp?) start bringing the net up to the surface. Even at 63 years young, Brown does his fair share of the hard labor, but today he gets little for his effort. The haul is mostly made up of rock fish.

BROWN

00:03:38
I mean, there's plenty of rock fish and you can see it's all sizes. I guess the biggest one's weigh in about 10 or 12 pounds and then you got some smaller ones.

WILSON

00:03:45
The problem is that rock fish season doesn't start for two more weeks, so keeping them now would be illegal. When it's all said and done, they've thrown what would have been $8,000 worth of rock fish back into the water. It doesn't make for a great start to Brown's week, but he reluctantly admits that the state and federal management plans put in place for the Bay and it's fisheries make sense.

BROWN

00:04:08
We would have had a good catch, if we could have kept them, but the only thing about that is you wouldn't get the money that you get for them now if everybody was fishing like we used to years ago. And we've got to manage the resource.

WILSON

00:04:21
Brown's energy is remarkable for his age. And he shows no signs of slowing down or even becoming bitter about new regulations or the ever present threat of pollution. Mick Blackistone says the secret to how watermen like Brown stay positive, isn't really a secret at all.

BLACKISTONE

00:04:38
I mean, they don't want to do anything else. That's the secret, is they don't want to do anything else.

WILSON

00:04:43
But ask Brown about his children and you can sense that he does see the end of a long line of Brown watermen on the horizon. He says both of his sons love working on the water, but simply can't afford to make a living without benefits like health insurance and retirement. One son has children of his own to support, and has a good job working for Verizon.

BROWN

00:05:03
He's planning on coming back once he retires. You know, and that's what you're looking at, you know. It's a lot of people throughout the state who have had to leave the seafood industry and get a job.

WILSON

00:05:14
And that's just it, being a waterman isn't a job, it's a way of life. And it's a way of life that Robert T. Brown isn't about to give up, no matter what the changing tides bring.

BROWN

00:05:26
Oh, you can't give up. You just can't give up. If you give up and don't fight them and keep trying, you're gone. So you just don't give up. If you give up you're over with.

WILSON

00:05:37
I'm Jonathan Wilson.
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