Both sides are making their casts in rockfish-gamefish debate


ANNAPOLIS -- Danny Bauer and Larry Simns have never met, probably never will, but both have definite views about rockfish.

Danny, the 2-year-old son of Fred Bauer of Huntingtown, delighted a Channel 11 news crew with his soft-spoken chant "rockfish/gamefish" at Monday's march on the Statehouse in support of a bill to ban the commercial fishing of striped bass.

"He's doing it for himself," said his bearded dad. "He'll want to fish for them himself, and gamefish will guarantee that." The father held the boy, who had a rockfish/gamefish bumper sticker plastered across his down jacket. In one hand the boy held a big inflatable bass, and in the other a trout of the same size.

Middle-aged Simns wasn't around for the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association's organized march of 750 anglers supporting gamefish designation for the official state fish. He was busy behind the scenes lobbying against Senate Bill 575, which is the subject of a Senate Economics and Environmental Matters Committee here today.

A close committee decision favoring Danny or Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, is expected within a couple days. It's a winner-take-all affair, there is no middle ground.

For Danny and a couple hundred thousand other hook and liners, the catching of fish -- especially rock -- is a big thing in life. For Simns and several hundred watermen, the catching of rock means a modest income at best at a time when oystering and clamming aren't very rewarding financially.

Simns thinks netters and sportsfishermen can co-exist with their different fish-catching gear without endangering rock. Those on Danny's side argue that belief.

And there are countless bay watchers -- also market rockfish consumers -- who find the proposed ban on commercial fishing puzzling. Who's right?

"They don't have to worry about us anymore," Simns said the afternoon after the march. "The days of the big catches are gone. We've learned something -- and are still learning."

Yesterday, MSSA executive director Rich Novotny renewed his claim that commercial fishing has to go. In addition, he has continually expressed doubts about the accuracy of commercial catch reports during the recent special gill net season. Department of Natural Resources statistics indicate watermen took about 130,000 pounds of rock, little more than one-third of their quota of 318,000 pounds, during that season.

If Senate Bill 575 perishes in committee, MSSA has backup legislation to be heard by the House Environmental Matters Committee tomorrow at 1 p.m. It would ban gill netting rock in the bay, and among its provisions is a one-time buyout that would compensate gill net users from $7,000 to $10,000 for giving up their gear.

The Senate bill offers a compensation package over five years. Under both plans, payoffs would be funded by special rockfish stamps for recreational and charterboat fishermen.

Simns warned both plans would be underfunded. Pete Jensen, who heads tidewater fisheries, also questioned MSSA's projections of 200,000 sportsfishermen buying the special permits.

"The gill netting bill is nothing more than a backdoor approach to gamefish status," griped Simns. "Other types of netting and commercial hook and line fishing isn't worth the effort here.

"We have no problem with the 400 and some who now have commercial hook and line licenses -- and 99 percent of them are sportsfishermen who want to keep the extra fish for their own use, and maybe for sale." The restricted gill net season, which was held in January and February, was, according to Simns, "one cog in a wheel -- a cog that was missing."

"It can keep us from going out of business," he emphasized.

"There's not much in oysters and clams in January and February -- and each net license holder is allowed 600 pounds of rock for the entire season, which figures out to about $1,200 to $1,500. That's not much, but it took the financial pressure off watermen -- and also took pressure off clams and oysters, as well as those competing to catch them. And, about rockfish, we can't wipe them out; we're limited to a top of 100 pounds [each netter] a day."

And around and around it goes, which makes this writer thankful he has no seat on the Senate Economic and Environmental Matters Committee.

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