Potomac River commercial fishermen are concerned over efforts by NOAA to establish a protected sanctuary in Mallows Bay on the Potomac River, about 40 miles south of Washington, D.C., and in the middle of prime commercial blue catfish and blue crab fishing grounds.

Commercial fisherman Richard Riche of St. Mary's County, Md., who fishes hoop nets for catfish and crab pots for blue crabs in this area, says he is opposed to the sanctuary and concerned about the future of being able to fish in these waters.

"They have told us that the sanctuary will not interfere with commercial fishing," says Riche. "It is clearly written, however, in their 400-page report that they have the right to manage commercial and recreation fishing policies.

"My concern is that what guarantee do we have that NOAA will change their minds, tell us we no longer can fish in the area? And then we will be out of business," he says.

Riche says 1.5 million pounds of catfish and 29,000 bushels of crabs were caught last year in or near the proposed sanctuary area. "We cannot afford to be guessing about our future, as to whether or not NOAA is going to allow us to fish," says Riche.

On March 20, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission voted 5-3 to kill a motion not to create a sanctuary on Mallows Bay. Commissioner, Virginia crabber and NF Highliner Ida Hall says the five commissioners who voted to kill the motion felt NOAA was only concerned with the "cultural shipwreck" jurisdiction and that, at least for now, it was not going to impact the commission's jurisdiction.

She also says Virginia and Maryland attorneys general have reviewed the proposal and confirmed NOAA is not interested in regulating recreational or commercial fishing on sanctuary waters.

"I voted in favor of the motion not to create a sanctuary because there is no guarantee that NOAA might not come back later and want to regulate the fisheries," says Hall.

It would take public hearings and an approval or veto from Maryland's Gov. Larry Hogan to change the management policy, she says. "But, there is that possibility that NOAA will take away the power of the commission."

Mallows Bay has nearly 200 known shipwrecks dating back to the Civil War, which NOAA and others have deemed to have cultural significance. In September 2014, the state of Maryland submitted a nomination for Mallows Bay to be added to NOAA's inventory of places to be considered as national marine sanctuaries.

The proposal has four options (click each one to view a detailed map):

A: NOAA would not designate a sanctuary;
B: A sanctuary would include a total area of 18 square miles;
C: A sanctuary would include a total area of 52 square miles;
D: A sanctuary would include a total area of 100 square miles.

Although public hearing sessions are over, the public has an opportunity to review the proposal and comment until Friday, March 31, either by mail or electronic comment.

Submit electronic comments at the Mallows Bay Potomac River website.

Submit a comment by mail to:
Paul Orlando, Chesapeake Bay Regional Coordinator
ONMS Northeast and Great Lakes Region
NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office
410 Severn Ave, Suite 207-A
Annapolis, MD, 21403.

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Larry Chowning is a writer for the Southside Sentinel in Urbanna, Va., a regular contributor to National Fisherman, and the author of numerous books.

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