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Marblehead resident Erik Smith acknowledges that he has an “obsession” with photographing Marblehead Light Tower in pre-sunrise light, which leads him to be out wandering around early almost every morning.
“I’ve heard the sounds of duck hunting from Fort Sewall often but only recently from much closer,” he explained.
As a bird lover, Smith does not support the pastime, nor is he a fan of what he calls “gun fetishizing in general.”
Shortly before the holiday, Smith was photographing the First Harbor Company Christmas boat when he heard shots that he was sure were coming from Crowninshield (Brown’s) Island, which bothered him.
So, as the unidentified men continued to return to the island to stalk waterfowl, Smith began to “hunt” them — with a camera. Smith said his plan had been to upset them and share their images on social media.
The rules set by the nonprofit land trust that owns and manages the island, The Trustees, seemed to be on Smith’s side. Crowninshield Island appears on a list of Trustees’ properties where hunting is prohibited.
Case closed, right?
Not so fast, said a spokesperson for The Trustees.
While it is true that Crowninshield is not a property where hunting is permitted, there is an old ordinance in Massachusetts dating back to Colonial times that gives people the right to fish, navigate, birdwatch and hunt waterfowl, so long as they are in the tideland — basically anything below the mean high tide line, explained The Trustees’ Aaron Gouveia.
“So while hunting is not allowed on Crowninshield, we legally cannot stop people from hunting waterfowl below the mean high tide on our coastal properties,” Gouveia said.
He added that it would be a different story if hunters entered the area via land, like driving into the parking lot at Crane Beach, another of The Trustees’ properties.
“But if they walk to our properties below the mean high water mark or they swam or arrive by boat, our hands are tied,” Gouveia said.
Gouveia said that The Trustees’ do enforce the state’s legal setbacks. So, people cannot hunt within 500 feet of a dwelling without permission, or 150 feet from a roadway.
“But at Crowninshield, almost all of the property is outside of that 500-foot dwelling setback except for a very small portion on the southwest side,” Gouveia said. “So far, we have not witnessed any violations of the law.”
Per §67.1 of the town bylaws, “migratory game” may also be shot over local waters within Marblehead police jurisdiction. But that does not stop the local police from fielding occasional calls from residents not aware of the practice of sea duck hunting in Marblehead who have been surprised by the sounds of a shotgun, according to Chief Dennis King.
“When calls come in, we would respond if needed, but oftentimes it’s confirmation that they have the right to hunt,” King said.
Beyond that, the state maintains regulations and designates hunting seasons for migratory fowl in coastal ways. The sea duck daily “bag limit” was recently lowered from five to four, with sea ducks now included as part of the six-duck daily bag limit. The current coastal duck hunting season runs through Jan. 31.
Smith acknowledged that his understanding of the law and rules was mistaken. But he is not ready to let the hunters off the hook completely.
“I have seen a lot of stories about gun fetishists intimidating voters, transgender people, or anyone else they don’t like,” Smith said. “I was elated at the opportunity to intimidate two men in a gun fetishizing relationship, as I feel they have a lot of questions to answer about what motivates them.”
ADDENDUM (Jan. 13): A reader has called our attention to Section 5C of Chapter 131 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which reads in relevant part: “No person shall obstruct, interfere with or otherwise prevent the lawful taking of fish or wildlife by another at the locale where such activity is taking place. It shall be a violation of this section for a person to intentionally… block, follow, impede or otherwise harass another who is engaged in the lawful taking of fish or wildlife.”