Fishing rights are abused by sportsmen, too


ANNAPOLIS -- On Monday night, 750 fishermen stood across the street from the front steps of the statehouse chanting, "Rockfish/gamefish. No more nets."

Among saltwater sportfishermen, these are meaningful phrases, and the 750 people who had marched from Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to the plaza before the statehouse wanted their phrases to be heard distinctly by the members of the state legislature arriving for a session.

Certainly, as a television crew from Channel 11 and a handful of print reporters recorded the proceedings, the voice of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association was heard.

Whether their message was understood is yet unclear.

At issue is Senate Bill 575, a proposal that would set aside Maryland's state fish, the rockfish, for the enjoyment of recreational fishermen. Commercial fishermen would be excluded from catching rockfish by hook and line, gill net, pound net or any other device. Commercial sale of wild rockfish would be banned.

The reasoning of the MSSA, which has been instrumental in having SB 575 introduced at 1 p.m. today, is that commercial fishermen have abused the fishery in past years and cannot be trusted to refrain from abusing it in the future.

So for the good of the fish, the reasoning goes, the commercial man should be excluded -- and for the good of the commercial man, a revitalization fund should be started for the purpose of refitting, retraining and removing him.

Nowhere in the reasoning of the MSSA is there reference to past abuses by recreational fishermen, no mention of stripers piled like cordwood on boat transoms, trash cans and coolers of fish taken from the bay and destined for church or club fish fries and family picnics.

But that surely is understandable. These days, of course, there are no unethical recreational fishermen -- only unethical watermen.

Make no doubt about it, the MSSA is a good organization; its membership is solidly behind SB 575 and committed to the full restoration of rockfish stocks in our waters.

The intent of SB 575 also is good, and the Waterman's Revitalization Fund it would create apparently would be supported by proceeds from the sale of rockfish stamps.

The fund would:

* Reimburse commercial fishermen for lost revenues and obsolescent equipment during a period of five years.

* Retrain and relocate watermen in new jobs in related marine professions.

* Refit vessels for other fisheries jobs when possible and give preference to watermen in state contracts for work in bay resources programs.

SB 575 also would provide for a task force to develop a world-class striped bass fishery in Maryland and thereby boost tourism and bring money into the state.

In the grand scheme of things, the private recreational fisherman might end up with 85 percent of the annual allocation of rockfish -- the 42.5 percent they already are entitled to and the 42.5 percent that had been set aside for commercial harvest. The other 15 percent of the catch would remain with the charter boats, which apparently would not benefit from SB 575.

For a recreational fisherman who pursues rockfish to the exclusion of other species, the grand scheme is fat city -- a bay full of rockfish, virtually year-round fishing and 85 percent of the catch.

But also understand that the MSSA has some 5,000 members, and some 200,000 recreational anglers fished for rockfish last fall. What do the 195,000 other recreational fishermen think of SB 575?

How many among them are in favor of legislating anyone out of a job?

Where are their voices being heard? Is this a bill to serve the few or the many?

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