My hopes and dreams for the coming year

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The cover date of the Soundings issue you’re reading is January 2017. As I write this, I wonder where 2016 went, a question that pops up frequently as I age. To figure that out, let’s revisit a few Bay topics from the past 12 months and make a Bottom of the Bay “Hopes and Dreams List” for 2017.

Wish No. 2 on the writer’s “Hopes and Dreams List” is non-ethanol gas for all boaters.

Rockfish Recruits

Some years ago, when I was active in the Maine chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, I came across a study of striped bass recruitment. It’s a count of the juvenile fish (less than a year old) caught in a trawl or seine for a specific length of time in a specific place. The trawls are taken during the same time of year in the same spots for comparative purposes.

In the Maryland survey the 63-year average of the number of these fish caught in each trawl was 11.7. In 2016 it was 2.2 — very low, but it follows excellent recruitment in 2011 (34) and 2015 (24). This information is from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, released in mid-October.

For a striper fisherman, following these results from year to year is a fun pursuit. By knowing the relative size of the class from past years, you can predict which years coming up may be the most productive for putting a fish on the table, and which years you might be better off eating chicken. Wish No. 1 is a big year class in 2017.

The End of Fuelishness

Now that Virginia has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to allow marinas to sell non-ethanol gasoline statewide, let’s hope the corn lobby’s war against gasoline inboards and outboards ends and we can all burn a sweet brew of No-E fuel in our marine engines.

Of course, the waiver requires EPA approval, which will involve a measure of politics and posturing, and that can lead the best decisions astray. From my professional standpoint, getting the ethanol out could save a lot of heartache for someone selling a gas-powered boat that has been sitting for some time and has fuel that has become unusable. There are fuel issues other than ethanol that can cause problems during a sea trial, but ethanol is predictably bad. It doesn’t simply degrade performance; it can cause serious problems that can kill a sale.

Few sellers want to pay to have old gas removed and discarded properly to avoid fuel-related issues during a survey. Wish No. 2: “No-E for all.”

Boat Tax Duels

In the November issue, I wrote about personal property tax rates on boats in coastal Virginia municipalities and how some cities use them as enticements to draw boats and business away from neighboring areas. This is a particular problem in Hampton Roads, with Hampton and Virginia Beach successfully draining business from Portsmouth and Norfolk by eliminating personal property taxes on boats.

Parties in the no-tax cities drool over adding a tax every couple of years, while in the taxing cities, any talk of eliminating the tax generates understandable resentment among residents who see boat owners as wealthy whiners.

I wrote about how Maine solved this problem by replacing the variable personal property tax with a statewide excise tax that stays in the municipalities and is uniformly applied. It is determined by boat length, not a pricing guide, and is a modest fee to pay for the enjoyment of the state’s waterways.

Wish No. 3 is to stop the squabbling over boat taxes and switch to a state-mandated excise tax. Let marinas and service providers stand on the quality of their services, not the tax decisions of whatever interests control their municipality.

Bottom of the Bay Boat Show

This a personal quest of mine. As I look up and down the waterfronts of Portsmouth and Norfolk, I see a boat show venue with unlimited growth potential. These areas have hotels and vibrant restaurant scenes. A spring show at Mile Marker Zero could consolidate a number of small local shows and serve markets from the Carolinas to Maryland. It could start on the Portsmouth side of the river and eventually expand to Norfolk. A ferry runs constantly back and forth.

One takeaway from this fall’s Annapolis powerboat and sailboat shows is the growth of the brokerage sections, an indicator that favors spring boat shows. Spring shows have a greater immediacy to them: People are looking for a boat to enjoy now, not in six months. This often means a brokerage boat, and a Mile Zero show likely would have a brokerage component as large as the new-boat component. The show also would serve sailors; we often feel lost in the sportfish focus of Virginia Beach.

Wish No. 4 is to get a Mile Zero Boat Show off the drawing board.

Gin-Clear Waters

Our last wish is everyone’s dream: a measurably cleaner Chesapeake Bay. The fall of 2015 treated us to water clarity unseen in years, perhaps decades. It was probably attributable to a long dry spell, which limited silt and agricultural runoff and exposed views of underwater structure that were widely photographed. Check the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Facebook page for November 2015 postings. I got there by searching “Chesapeake clear water photos.”

It was a dramatic show of what can happen — and happen quickly — when runoff is controlled, whether by man or Mother Nature. The stakeholders know what needs to be done, but powerful industrial agriculture interests are in play. For my part, I have stopped being a consumer of chicken, eggs and pork, which this year alone has spared at least one hog, a couple dozen chickens and their associated runoff. Wish No. 5 is making real progress toward a cleaner Bay.

Back to today: The sun is out, temps are in the 60s and 70s, and snowbirds are sailing by. To paraphrase Tom Jones (the Henry Fielding version) in the movie of the same name: It’s a good day to be out and heading south. (The actual quote is, “It’s a good night to be abroad and looking for game.”) It’s never dull at Mile Zero. See you at the bottom of the bay, the top of the Ditch.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue.