Setting sights on the Potomac’s recovery
In the 50 years the Potomac River Fisheries Commission has been regulating the “nation’s river,” it has had only three executive secretaries.
Martin L. Gary, who spent 27 years with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, became the third when he joined the bistate commission on July 1, replacing Kirby A. Carpenter, who retired after 30 years’ service.
Gary, 52, a fisheries biologist, says he’s getting to know the four-member staff at the commission’s Colonial Beach headquarters. For now, he’s making a daily commute from his home in Baltimore.
“Every day I get in the car and drive down here, I know it’s a privilege to work here, and to live up to the reputation that A.C. [Carpenter] had, because he was very well-respected,” Gary said in a recent interview.
Carpenter, who lives in Southern Maryland, over three decades helped the commission navigate—among other things—the collapse of the striped bass fishery in the 1980s, its rebound a decade later and ongoing efforts to jump-start an oyster industry struggling to survive in the face of disease, pollution and overharvesting.
Robert M. Norris Jr., the commission’s first executive secretary, was Carpenter’s predecessor.
Gary said the PRFC job is one of a kind, “and I wanted the chance to participate in the interjurisdictional fisheries management process.”
The agency’s scope extends beyond the borders of Virginia and Maryland: The PRFC is represented on the regional Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Commissioner Dennis Fleming, a licensed Maryland fishing guide who was part of the search committee, said Gary has a “good understanding of sustainable fisheries. And another big plus is his formal education in wildlife and fisheries sciences. So it’s safe to say he gets the big picture.”
Gary says he was an unlikely choice for the job: a city boy, born and raised in Baltimore. But that’s where his connection with rivers and conservation began, in Baltimore’s Leakin cq Park.
The city, he says, “had the foresight to carve out these natural areas.”
He and his buddies played in and around streams flowing through the park—streams, he remembers, that were “generally lifeless.”
The boys, Gary said, later bugged their parents to take them fishing.
By the time he was in high school, “It was clear to me that I loved all natural things—fish, birds, reptiles, whatever. I took to it.”
He went fishing whenever he got the chance, scuba diving, “anything that had to do with water.”
That eventually led him to fishing trips on streams and rivers across Maryland, including the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay.
“So in high school, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a biologist and work with fish.”
He studied marine biology at Texas A&M University, graduating in 1982. After that, he worked a brief stint at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
At the time, he says, friends were taking jobs as observers on foreign fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. He wanted to go, but a woman he was dating at the time wanted him to stay.
He landed a job with the Maryland DNR in 1986, a year after the striped bass moratorium was imposed. Stocks of the prized game fish had dropped so low that Maryland in 1985 initiated a harvest ban.
Over the years, Gary worked as a field biologist assessing striped bass stocks, on fish passages, artificial reef development, and most recently, managing communications and outreach for the agency.
Leaving, he says, was difficult.
“It’s like a family, you know everybody. The job was diverse and very rewarding.”
But, “With something like this opening up, I rationalized this as a rare opportunity.” Gary is married and has two grown children.
He concedes there are big challenges, including resuscitating the Potomac’s oyster stocks, which stand at about 1 percent of historic levels.
This summer, the blue crab harvest—a key moneymaker for hundreds of watermen—is significantly down from last year.
“First, every problem is an opportunity, something that can motivate people to come together to make things better,” said Gary, noting that he’s still getting up to speed on Potomac River issues.
Working with watermen who earn a living on the river is part of the executive secretary’s job.
Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, who got to know Gary during his tenure at DNR in Maryland, said Gary works well with others. “I think he’ll do a good job.”
The crab slump is a pressing concern: In July, Potomac watermen reported catching 6,564 bushels, compared with 11,849 bushels a year ago, according to preliminary figures. The long-term average for July is 17,975 bushels.
Scientists say one factor could be an unusual influx of red drum, fish that love to snack on juvenile blue crabs.
“But, coming from DNR and seeing the caliber of science applied to that resource, I’m confident that we can overcome some of those obstacles,” Gary said.
“And oysters—those are the bedrock of the ecosystem in the bay and its tributaries.” Besides being tasty on the half-shell, oysters are efficient filters that improve water quality.
“We want to set the stage for recovery,” Gary said. “No one’s saying we’re going to turn it around in a couple years. We need to be setting the base for long-term recovery, with the best science available.
In recent years, the PRFC has created oyster sanctuaries to protect breeding stock, rotational harvests, off-limits areas, and a put-and-take fishery to begin next spring. Watermen pay into a fund to stock areas with sterile oysters that grow to market size much faster than fertile ones.
DEVELOPMENT AN ISSUE
Gary says that there is some good news. Oyster diseases MSX and Dermo are at a five-year ebb, and oyster reproduction in Maryland waters outside the Potomac is the best in nearly 20 years.
Ongoing development along the Potomac that affects fish, crabs, oysters and other marine life is a concern.
“Today, one of the things that came across my desk,” he said, were two public notices in Charles County, Md., for wastewater treatment plants. One would drain into a stream feeding Allens Fresh, widely known for its spring yellow perch run.
“I’m not sure if there’s anything wrong with it,” Gary said of the plan. “But I want to make development and land use more visible to the commission.”
At DNR, Gary was the liaison to sport and tidal fishery advisory commissions. Working with nonprofits, he helped secure materials from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to create about a dozen artificial reefs, and with the private sector to launch the annual Maryland Fishing Challenge tournament, in its ninth year.
He’d like to find more money for the PRFC: Maryland and Virginia legislatures each kick in $145,000 a year. The agency gets a grant of less than $100,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the rest of its funding comes from licenses and user fees.
Gary says the preamble of the 55-year-old PRFC compact offers some good direction for him.
“It talks about the purpose of the commission to conserve and improve the fisheries of the tidal Potomac. That sets the tone for everything.”
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431
ABOUT THE PRFC
The Potomac River Fisheries Commission was created by compact 1958 in the wake of the deadly Maryland–Virginia “oyster wars” of the 1940s and 1950s among rival watermen from each side of the Potomac. The compact allowed the states to jointly regulate commercial and recreational fishing.
President Kennedy signed the enabling legislation in 1962. The commission, whose jurisdiction extends from near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to the mouth of the river, held its first meeting in 1963.
For more about the PRFC, visit prfc.us.