ANNAPOLIS -- The voices of Maryland's recreational and commercial fishermen were heard yesterday during an Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee hearing on Senate Bill 575, the Rockfish Preservation Act of 1991.
During more than two hours of testimony, sportfishing interests praised SB 575 as a method by which the state's recovering stocks of rockfish could be further conserved.
Representatives of commercial fishermen, the charter-boat industry and the Department of Natural Resources opposed the bill.
"Senate Bill 575 is a proposal that sets a new direction as to how we deal with our state fish and those who fish for them, commercially or for recreation," Sen. Michael J. Collins, D-Baltimore County, said in introducing the bill.
Under the bill, that new direction would be the declaration of the rockfish as a game fish in Maryland waters and the redistribution of the commercial portion of the catch to recreational fishermen.
The bill also would prohibit the sale of wild rockfish in Maryland and would supplement them with farm-raised rockfish.
The supporters of SB 575 contend that the commercial fishery no longer is a viable economic enterprise and that gill netters in particular are hindering the recovery of the rockfish.
Under SB 575, which was formulated in large part by the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, watermen who fish for rockfish would be compensated for lost revenues, retrained for marine-related jobs and given preference in contracts for state work with bay resources.
Funding for that program would come from the sale of a mandatory rockfish stamp, at a cost of $15 per individual, $30 per private boat and $125 per charter boat.
Fred Meers, president of the 7,000-member sportfishermen's group, testified that the bill expresses the wishes of close to 500,000 recreational fishermen in Maryland.
"Our reason for being here today," Meers said, "concerns the use and allocation of our rockfish resource. This allocation issue is a mandate from our membership, [and] its broad base of support among recreational fishermen is evidenced by 29,000 signed petitions being brought before you at this time.
"These petitions call for game fish status for the rockfish."
The system for the rockfish harvest currently calls for 42.5 percent (318,750 pounds) of the catch to be allowed to private recreational fishermen, 42.5 percent for the commercial fishermen and 15 percent (112,500 pounds) to customers of charter boats.
"On the surface, this might appear fair," Meers said. "But closer examination clearly reveals that of the 220,000 recreational fishermen participating in the 1990 session, fewer than one fish for every three people could be caught."
Meers' contention is that the commercial allocation benefited only 400 netters, who in turn were able to sell their catch back to the public at a profit.
"When this precious resource will not even satisfy recreational demand, why must we allow fewer than 400 netters to take precedence over 220,000 recreational fishermen? . . Is this the best use of the resource?" Meers said.
Statistics entered into testimony by the Sport Fishing Institute showed that fishermen spent $15.1 million on fishing during the past recreational and commercial rockfish seasons. Of that, 87 percent was spent by recreational fishermen, 11 percent was spent by charter-boat operators and customers, and 2 percent was spent by commercial fishermen. Similar percentages were determined for state tax revenues of $1.3 million.
If there were a greater recreational season, proponents said, tax revenues could be expected to rise proportionately.
/# James Peck, assistant secretary
of DNR, opposed the bill, saying it would provide neither protection nor management for the fishery.
"This bill is not about the protection of the fish; it is about if there are a certain number of fish to be caught, then who is to catch them," Peck said.
Peck said the past commercial and recreational season for rockfish demonstrated that the DNR is able to monitor the fisheries and shut them down when the quotas are reached.
Changes in regulations governing mesh size for gill nets also have reduced the damage netters do to stocks, Peck said.
Peck also took issue with the figures on economic impact supplied by proponents of the bill.
"The bottom line is that data does not accurately represent the real economic impact of the recreational vs. commercial fisheries," Peck said. "If we are changing public policy and establishing a law now to maximize economic returns from the fish, then there are better ways to do that than this bill does."
Peck, reading from a letter written by Gov. William Donald Schaefer in which the governor wrote: "We must guarantee that everyone, commercial fishermen, sportfishermen, charter-boat operators, gets their fair share of the catch. No group must be excluded."
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman's Association, said that although the winter season for rockfish produced only $1,200 or $1,300 per man this year, the economic impact on the commercial watermen is significant because it carries them through a period of the year when money is tight.
"January is the turning point for many watermen," Simns said. "It also helped the people onshore -- those retired fishermen maybe who fill the sandbags or mend the nets. That season kept them off the welfare rolls. It wasn't a lot of money to some people, but it is all relevant. What is a little to some people is a lot to others."
As for the provisions in the bill that would compensate, retrain and re-employ commercial fishermen, Simns said there is little if any interest in it among the watermen.
"I don't think we, as commercial fishermen, have the right to sell a heritage, a way of making a living for a future generation," Simns said. "I certainly don't think than any one group has the right to buy us out."
The Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee is expected to vote on the proposal within two weeks. If approved, the bill will go to the full Senate and, if approved there, to the House of Delegates.