The brief, lucrative crab-diving careers of Tommy Thompson and Frank Schultz are over, nipped in the bud by an emergency state regulation. That suits them just fine.
They made good money for a few days' work and someday they'll tell their grandchildren about the time they sold a bushel of crabs for $75. But more than making unexpected dollars in lean times, they wanted to make a point.
"We're trying to get their attention," said the burly, bearded Thompson after stripping off the drysuit in which he had spent all Wednesday working the bottom of the Miles River.
"We want the Department [of Natural Resources] to know if they don't change the rules it's not only oysters that are going to be dived on, it's going to be crabs and who-knows-what-else.
"Diving's wrong. It's been banned almost everywhere for commercial fishermen," said Thompson, "but they're letting it run just rampant here and I don't know why."
These are strong words and complicated thoughts from a fellow who had just caught $300 worth of crabs diving and who survived a hard winter by diving for oysters.
"A diver said that? I can't believe it," said DNR Deputy Secretary Louis Phipps.
Thompson and Schultz say plenty of Maryland watermen took up oyster diving this year because they couldn't afford not to. Those watermen, say Thompson and Schultz, believe as they do, that diving ought to be sharply controlled by the state before the seafood stocks of the Chesapeake are plundered.
To make his point, Thompson, along with two other captains, went crab-diving on opening day of the season, April 1, despite the state's contention that regulations prohibited it.
The watermen were ticketed and on Tuesday went to court. There Thompson, Jesse Jump and Ricky Roe argued successfully that the regulations did not prohibit diving for crabs as long as divers carried dip nets with them. The judge said the rules didn't define whether a dip-netter had to be in or out of the water.
On Wednesday Thompson was back underwater with a ridiculous little dip net attached to his back, while Schultz ran the boat and sorted the crabs he found. That night, as Thompson hoped, the DNR passed emergency regulations banning crab-diving.
Thus ended, at least for this year, the threat of a massive assault on crabs while they lie buried in mud, immobilized in winter hibernation. Crabbers now must wait until early next month, when the water warms and crabs start to move, before they can start catching again by conventional traps and trotlines.
But the dispute over diving as an appropriate method for harvesting the bay runs on.
Oyster diving, which a decade ago was an experiment for a few sport divers, boomed last winter into a major industry accounting for almost one-fifth of Maryland's biggest seafood catch.
Thompson and Schultz, both of whom joined the diving throngs midway through the oyster season, claim the technique is too fruitful and too easy. "At least crabs can run away. Nothing's as helpless as an oyster," said Schultz.
Maryland has long used hardship as a tool in protecting bay species from overfishing. By requiring oystermen to use physically demanding hand tongs or to dredge for oysters under sail, they kept dilettantes from joining the rough-and-tumble world of watermen.
But Schultz said anyone can catch oysters by diving. "A 2-year-old can do it," he said. "Some guy who's never been on the bay can catch 35 bushels when a guy who's worked the water all his life is catching 15 with hand tongs."
DNR is not oblivious to these accusations, nor is the legislature, where a bill under consideration would set tighter limits on the size of oysters divers could catch, define where they could work and limit total catch per dive boat.
With the legislative year ending tonight, the fate of the bill is in doubt, but Lee Zeni, head of DNR's Tidewater Administration, said his agency has been working long hours to try to hammer out a compromise.
Anything short of a ban will be too little for Thompson and Schultz, who believe the appropriate place for a waterman is safe aboard his boat, not paddling around cold water among the fish and crabs.
They went crab-diving to draw attention to the perils, they say, and it worked.
"We got more publicity out of three days of this than we did in five years of oyster diving," said Thompson. "People don't care about what we do out here in the winetr, but when you start talking about catching up all their hard crabs, then they start listening.