Recent news of a noisy hearing on a proposed oyster law brings back memories of past debates over oysters. I remember Governor Harry Hughes telling me once of hearings where oystermen stood in the hearing room with their long sharp hand tongs at their sides. A rather threatening image.
My uncle’s father was an oysterman. I remember his deadrise workboat, always crisp white, swinging from a stake. As kids we could mess around with the other skiffs and rowboats, but we weren’t allowed near that boat. That boat was his workplace, his livelihood – at least until oyster diseases finally brought down the fishery in his area and it was hardly worth going out for oysters any more.
His name was Mr. Minor. He was a gentle man, with that country wisdom you can’t learn in a schoolroom. He’s been gone a long time now, but I wonder what he would think about today’s debates over oysters.
A quiet man, I don’t think he would like the tone. Evidently when one of the state resource manager was testifying at the recent oyster hearing, people jeered. Someone started making coo-coo bird sounds. The oyster debate has gotten personal. It may get worse.
There’s a reason people are tense. These are tough times. Watermen in particular have never been rich, at least not in financial terms. Their wealth comes from family, from what they know about the water, from hard work. It comes from the satisfaction that derives from independence, from working for themselves and making it on their own.
We need to find a balance between honoring that independence and protecting the public good – in this case the public oyster bars that belong to all of us. We have to find a way to balance these values if we’re going to live in a civil society.
It’s too bad that public hearings often bring out the worst in people. Attitudes get hardened. Frustration turns to ridicule. Ridicule leads to anger.
Is there a place for a better dialogue? Or will it all come down to power politics in the end? I think we all deserve something better.