Faces of Great Bay: David O’Hearn

Jeff Barnum

David O’Hearn is a Bayman in New Hampshire’s Great Bay.

David O’Hearn is a Bayman in New Hampshire’s Great Bay.

David O’Hearn is not easy to reach. If you want to sit down and talk, you need to catch him at work or during a blizzard. Otherwise, he is out doing something on Great Bay. That something does not include talking on a cell phone. David loves to clam, do a little trapping, harvest oysters, fish for stripers, catch a few smelts, and trap some lobsters. He always did and always will. He is a Bayman.

David grew up on the Squamscott River and still lives near it. The river and the bay attracted him like a magnet. He was enamored with the mysteries of the river and where it went. Great Bay was a whole new universe begging to be explored. He did things in boats as a youth that would appall any parent if they found out. Older, experienced baymen schooled him in fishing, shellfishing, and lobstering. He is married to the Bay, and has never contemplated divorce.

So what’s changed over the decades? In the early 1970s, the exposed mudflats along the Squamscott would stink from pollution that probably came from the already defunct textile mills in Exeter. The smell now is what you would expect. Wildlife along the river is much more prolific.

Water temperature and unusually large rain events, affecting salinity, really alter conditions in the Bay. “I did not catch even one lobster for an entire month after the Mother’s Day flood in 2006,” David says. “Nor did I trap any in Great Bay proper during the prolonged heat waves of the last two summers.” David sees green crabs when the water is warm, red crabs when the temperature is lower, and now even blue crabs at the mouth of the Bellamy. The invasive green crabs have been around for quite a while, but the blue crabs are new and may be a response to warming waters. “The striper fishing has been up and down and there used to be a lot more, and bigger, fish,” says David. He seldom sees any filter feeding pogies (menhaden) anymore.

Tides and rain affect water clarity. More sediment is in suspension. The extent of eelgrass has diminished. The last couple of years, David has seen a very significant increase in algae blooms and nuisance seaweeds. Pulling his lobster buoys becomes a real chore because the rope is fouled by a mass of plant growth like never before. “I am forced to pull a knife to cut the growth from the line while trying to operate my boat at the same time,” he says.

Though David is prone to voting “no” on most bond issues in Exeter, he is supporting the one this March to approve funds that will allow the town to move ahead with their new sewage treatment plant. “That new plant will reduce nitrogen that is currently wreaking havoc with Great Bay,” he says. David also supports the removal of the Great Dam in Exeter in order to maximize fish passage.

There is no question that David loves Great Bay. My sense is that he will pass on to others what he has learned from those who came before. David, and folks like him, is one reason that Great Bay needs and deserves whatever work is necessary to protect and improve it. Learn more about David and his love of Great Bay.

Our Faces of Great Bay series profiles people who live near and love the Great Bay Estuary, and who are working to protect it for today and future generations.

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