They fidgeted in the marble chambers like restless schoolchildren waiting for recess.

On a rain-soaked morning this spring, any one ofthe dozens of bearded men in jeans and flannel shirts would have preferred the back of a workboat on the open water to a stuffy General Assembly hearing room.

But watermen from Anne Arundel County and the Eastern Shore, a fiercely independent bunch, decided to forgo a day's catch and their daily struggle against nature's fickle elements to fight yet another proposed state regulation in Annapolis.

This time, lawmakers wanted to allow only sport fishermen to catch striped bass, the official state fish and a longtime staple for many watermen. Recreational anglersblamed watermen for over-harvesting, leading to a 1985 statewide banon catching the bass, also known as rockfish. But with rockfish rebounding, sport fishermen argued, the state would reap greater economicbenefits from the striper as a game fish than as a commercial product.

To watermen, that Senate proposal, along with one before a House committee, had become a symbol of government bureaucracy they view as a threat to their livelihood.

"Everything used to be simple," said Shady Side waterman Tommy Hallock, 30. "You went out and caught what you did and sold it. Now it's all tied up in red tape."

Over the past few decades, watermen have watched with dismay as state regulations shortened seasons, limited the amount of oysters and clams they can harvest and forbade them to catch rockfish and shad. Some rivers are now off limits to crab pots, while the Chester, Choptank, Magothy and Severn rivers have been closed to yellow perch fishing for twoyears.

The limits, state officials say, protect natural resourcesfor all users of the Chesapeake Bay. Proper management has allowed apublic fishery to thrive in Maryland, officials say, while fishing corporations have wiped out independent watermen in other states.

For instance, the moratorium on striped bass allowed the once-endangered fish, threatened by pollution in spawning grounds and commercial and recreational over-harvesting, to flourish again, said W. Pete Jensen, director of fisheries for the state Department of Natural Resources.

"We have to balance out the watermen as an interest group withother groups," Jensen said. "But the fish, crabs, oysters and clams are the bottom line of why we're cleaning up the bay."

Given the restraints, commercial fishermen say, it's no coincidence that the number of watermen who dock their boats in the county's once-thriving fishing communities has dwindled from some 3,000 in the early 1960s to 300 today.

"We pay our tax dollars for them to ruin our lives," said Billy Joe Groom, a third-generation waterman from Shady Side who lost more than half his income when he was forced to abandon striped bass netting.

"As far as I'm concerned, the state has tried everything they can do to put the fishermen out of business. All they want is a couple of skipjacks and a couple of tong boats to show people on Chesapeake Appreciation Days," Groom said.

The survivors have become adept at lobbying, by necessity, they say, to keep from being regulated out of business.

"The day of being just a waterman, just a seafood harvester, is over," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "You have to participate in every facet ofthe industry, including the making of laws and regulations or you'regoing to become obsolete -- a member of a nonexistent industry."

Simns has rallied watermen throughout the state to organize. He worksclosely with officials at the Department of Natural Resources and with groups such as the Marine Trades Association, which represents recreational boating interests.

Watermen have spoken out against dumping dredge spoils in the bay and against destroying marshland during development, which allows harmful nutrients into the water. They haveadvocated environmental measures, such as a state ban on phosphates,tighter limits on sewage treatment plant discharges and stricter requirements on building within 1,000 feet of the bay and its tributaries.

Last month, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation proposal for a three-year ban on oyster harvesting -- the environmentalists' remedy to save the species -- enraged watermen, forcing them to defend their livelihood once again.

Simns also has worked with state officials to ensure that a form of aquaculture in which fishermen grow oysters and clams in floating trays in the bay won't interfere with watermen harvesting oysters or clams from the bottom.

Watermen's efforts have scored major victories in the rockfish battle. First, they helped defeat a 1989 bill to make striped bass solely a game fish, and this year they persuaded Gov. William Donald Schaefer to lend them his support.

"No group must be excluded. No group must benefit at the expense ofanother," Schaefer wrote legislators during the recent session.

But though this spring's rockfish bill before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee never passed, watermen fear the battle hasn't ended. Eventually, they say, sport fishermen, who far outnumber watermen, will prevail.

"They're bound and determined," said John Orme, president of the Anne Arundel County Watermen's Association, noting that New Jersey just banned commercial striped bass fishing."They've got a lot of money they can afford to spend. We're fightingfor our livelihood. They're fighting for a sport. I'm not trying to take anything away from them, but they're trying to take it away fromus."

And rightly so, says Fred Meers, president of the 6,500-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association. The state's half-million recreational anglers, who catch an average of just one rockfish for every three fishermen, surely should take precedence over a tiny minority out for financial gain, he said.

"Yet fewer than 400 netters can take 100 fish each and sell them to the public," Meers said. "The issue, plain and simple, is at what point and to what extent do we allow exploitation of a natural resource for personal gain?"

The anglers contend that not much of a commercial fishery remains anyway. During a January commercial rockfish season, the first allowed in five years, only a few commercial watermen harvested the fish. Their meager profits prove the relative unimportance of the industry, sport fishermen say.

Watermen who once made a living hauling in rockfish counter that the season, far more restrictive than any in the past, allowed them at least to earn some money during a traditionally slow time. At an average $2 a pound, some watermen earned up to $1,500.

"During the month of January, $1,200 to $1,500 is a big boost toanyone's income," Simns said. "Especially to a man who makes nothing."

As for the $4 million fund this spring's bill would have raisedfrom sport fishing license fees to train watermen in marine-related jobs, watermen would rather work on the water, Simns said.

"I don't think we have the right to sell out a heritage and way of making a living for future generations," he said. "They don't have the right to buy it out. No amount of money is going to buy us out, and it's certainly not going to help the striped bass."

In Anne Arundel County, intense development prompted Orme to take up the watermen's cause 31/2 years ago. He and his wife revived a dying county watermen's association, nearly sunk by apathy and poor management. The group now has about 100 members.

"I got involved because watermen can't affordto live or work here anymore," Orme said. "It costs so much."

He is attempting to persuade county officials to revise land-use laws and offer public docking.

Orme envisions the county buying or leasing land where workboats could dock. He would also like watermen to geta reprieve from some of the county's restrictive land-use laws.

Currently, "if you live in a residential neighborhood, you can't storecrab pots in your yard," he said, adding that neighbors' complaints forced a Magothy River waterman to get rid of his crab-shedding boxes.

Watermen have found sympathetic ears in the city of Annapolis. During the administration of former Mayor Dennis M. Callahan, officials waived docking fees for oystermen at City Dock and began restoring the old McNasby Oyster Co. in Eastport to revive the city's once-thriving seafood processing industry.

The 82-year-old former oyster plant on Second Street closed in 1987 as the city's last seafood processor. In September 1989, city officials bought the plant for $1.2 million with state, local and private financing and leased it to the Maryland Watermen's Cooperative, which has grown to 54 members from nine counties.

These days, watermen steer their boats to the Back Creekdock to unload oysters in the winter and crabs in the summer. In a partially enclosed bay area, workers pack soft-shell crabs to ship outof state by air. The co-op sells seafood wholesale to shucking houses, restaurants and supermarkets and runs a retail fish market that serves the neighborhood. Half the produce comes from co-op members.

The original plan to bring seafood processing back to Annapolis -- once home to more than a dozen seafood plants -- is on track again after hitting some snags late last year.

This spring, financing for renovations needed to meet state health codes came in the form of county and state low-interest loans totaling $150,000. Reconstruction of the processing area should get under way this summer, with crab picking to start by early fall and oyster shucking to follow in the winter,said co-op general manager Andrew Kaelin.

Once the plant can shuck its own oysters and pick its own crabs, it can sell fresh crab meatand shucked oysters. That would increase the value of the products and save the plant money otherwise spent sending seafood out for processing. That, in turn, would allow the plant to compete with other states and in the international market.

Kaelin hopes to develop overseas markets for crab meat and soft-shell crabs and market pre-cooked frozen crab meat to consumers in Japan and Europe. Already, the co-opships soft crabs by air to the Midwest and California and sends hardcrabs by refrigerated truck to Pennsylvania, New England, New York and the Midwest.

Only by organizing, by setting aside age-old rivalries and competition among themselves for market and product, have watermen kept their industry afloat, they say. Otherwise, their work now would be nothing but part time.

But working the water never willbe anything but a life's work for watermen like Hallock, who spends winters tonging for oysters and fishing and spends summers crabbing, steering the Southern Belle toward the bay each morning while his yellow Labrador keeps watch from the top of the boat.

Hallock says hecouldn't conceive of any other way of life. And nothing less than a natural disaster closing the bay could keep him from it.

"That's what I am. I'm a waterman," he said. "It's in my blood."

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