CHESTER — The presumptive president of the Maryland State Senate visited Queen Anne’s and Kent counties on Monday, Dec. 9, with State Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, to learn more about the key issues affecting the Eastern Shore.
The Jan. 8 start to the 2020 Session of the Maryland General Assembly is fast approaching and changes are on the horizon. For the first time in 33 years, the Maryland State Senate will have a new leader, Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-46-Baltimore City.
On Oct. 24, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. stepped down from the role he had held since 1987. In a unanimous vote that same day, the Democratic caucus elected Ferguson the presumptive Senate president.
The official vote of all members of the Senate will be held on the first day of the 2020 Session. Ferguson is expected to be unchallenged and unanimously sworn in as the 86th president of the Maryland Senate.
“Sen. Ferguson let me know that he wanted to visit as many districts as possible before the start of the 2020 Session,” Hershey said. “I am very appreciative he made time to come to the Eastern Shore to learn about some of the prevalent issues in District 36.”
The tour began at commercial boat slips at Kent Narrows. Ferguson was greeted by waterman Troy Wilkins of Queen Anne and Queen Anne’s County Chamber of Commerce President Linda Friday.
“One of the most contentious issues we faced last year was the regulations and harvesting restrictions placed on commercial watermen, especially the oystermen,” Hershey said in a press statement following the visit. “While we all want to see our fisheries grow, there isn’t a single group to blame for the decline in oysters. Disease, sediment, fresh water, natural predators have all had a effect.”
“We recognize that the best way to help the struggling oyster population is through a seed-on-shell program,” Hershey said as a steady rain fell on Kent Island at the docks on Monday. “And in order to do that, we need shell. Man O’ War Shoal has more shell than we’d ever need.”
Hershey explained that the benefits of dredging and planting shell is poorly understood, but is necessary for watermen to make a living and for the long-term health of the Chesapeake Bay.
“The same way farmers put seed in the ground, (watermen) put seed on shell on the bottom,” Hershey said.
Ferguson listened intently, nodding and asked clarifying questions as Wilkins explained how Mid-Shore watermen view restrictive regulations as well as programs that help, emphasizing the benefits of the historical knowledge and experience of those who harvest the Bay’s seafood.
The spat-on-shell program “worked for 40 years,” Wilkins said.
“And what happened?” Ferguson asked.
“The spat counts got low, and I think the environmental groups started putting pressure on the Ehrlich administration to stop it,” Wilkins said.
“It’s easy to blame the watermen for over-harvesting, but that’s not accurate,” Hershey said. “These guys who make their living on the water — that are out there on a day-to-day basis, season after season after season — they’re recognizing that it’s not an over-harvesting issue. There are so many other factors.”
“The Man O’ War thing would really help the oyster population,” Wilkins told the two legislators. “I’m also on the Oyster Advisory Commission, and we hear all those scientists saying stock assessments are low, and we already know that. Let’s fix it. You don’t have to have a whole lot of letters behind your name to know the population’s low. Just fix it. And that’s the right way to fix it.”
“There’s nothing better than actual shell,” Hershey said. “The best way to keep these oyster beds working is to work the bottom” to keep sediment from building up.
Dredging the Man O’ War Shoal at the mouth of the Patapsco River in Baltimore County has long been a contentious issue. Watermen favor dredging the oyster shell reef and placing the shell in tributaries where baby oysters, or spat, can latch on and grow. Environmental groups generally want to protect the reef and use alternative materials like granite to grow oysters and increase their population.
“Troy is an example of the many men and women who work the waters of the Chesapeake Bay; their passion and expertise needs be part of the solution as we work towards a sustainable oyster population,” Hershey said in the press release.
Another area of importance is the regional initiative to increase participation in career technology education programs in the five Mid-Shore counties served by Chesapeake College.
“Last year, we introduced legislation HB513/SB1002 aimed to assist youths seeking opportunities pursuing a trade, working in the hospitality industry, or developing skills in manufacturing and construction,” Hershey said. “While we were successful passing our bill through the House of Delegates, we had trouble in the Senate. I felt it was important to have Linda, who has been one of most influential advocates of behalf of the businesses in Queen Anne’s County, convey the importance of this program to Senator Ferguson.”
The tour next moved through Centreville and on to Chestertown.
“Ferguson seemed impressed in seeing our brand new court house and learning that the historic courthouse is one of the oldest in continuous use,” Hershey said. I was also able to discuss some of our farming practices on crop lands and the importance of the poultry industry in the more rural parts of the district. We also touched on the balloon release ban, initiated with the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners, and being prepared as a statewide initiative this upcoming session.”
The final stop was Shore Medical Center at Chestertown. Over the last several years, the Eastern Shore delegation members have introduced and passed several bills aimed at enhancing the delivery of health care services throughout the rural areas of the state and particularly focused on keeping the Chestertown hospital viable and functioning amidst the constantly changing and onerous federal and state regulations.
Joining Hershey and Ferguson in at the hospital were Del. Jay Jacobs, R-36-Kent, Queen Anne’s, Cecil, and Caroline; Shore Regional Health Vice President Patti Willis and Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino.
During the tour of the facility, including the third floor, where the anticipated new behavioral health unit will be located, the group discussed the importance of the hospital in the community not just from a health care prospective, but also as a driver of the Kent County economy.
“It is important that we, with the state’s assistance, find a way to ensure the hospital can remain financially viable while providing the health care services this community needs,” Hershey said. “There are too many rules dictating how long a patient must be admitted or the designation of care they must receive in order for the hospital to be reimbursed. Not every hospital can operate in a one-size-fits-all regulatory framework,”
“Rural hospitals are closing all across the country at alarming rates. This shows us the enacted regulations aren’t adequate for facilities in these areas,” Hershey said. “We’ve recognized this and are taking all actions to make sure it doesn’t happen here.”
“Overall, we’re very pleased Sen. Ferguson was able to visit and listen to some of our priorities outside of the halls of Annapolis,” Hershey said. “Seeing things and talking to the people directly involved can leave a real impression. Plus it never hurts to keep building upon personal relationships, it’s essential for representing the district and getting things accomplished in Annapolis.”