The Maryland Senate approved legislation yesterday that would prohibit the use of power dredging to catch oysters and clams in the Atlantic coastal bays, after days of emotional debate during which opponents argued that the bill would destroy a Maryland tradition.
The Senate voted 29-18 for the bill that bans mechanical dredging in areas known as the back bays, or shallow lagoons behind Ocean City and Assateague Island.
The move marked a reversal for the chamber, which rejected a similar bill last month. Instead, the Senate took up a bill that recently passed the House of Delegates, amending it slightly to move the effective date back one year to October 2008.
Maryland would join Delaware and Virginia in banning the practice, which some say harms the environment. Gov. Martin O'Malley is reviewing the bill and has not taken a position, spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.
Proponents hailed the measure, backed by recreational fishermen, as a way to protect underwater grasses and fish from hydraulic machines that stir up silt. During the debate, Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat, held up pictures of plumes caused by the dredgers and said the bays "belong to all of us."
"We're not telling them not to fish; we're just telling them not to use dredging," Dyson said, pointing out that hand tongs could still be used.
But critics of the ban said it would put some watermen out of business. While they agreed that only a handful of watermen would be affected, they said it's unfair for the state to make a long-held method illegal. One senator compared the situation to forcing farmers to use horse-drawn plows.
"We're putting them out of business by virtue of our actions. Period. End of story," said Sen. David Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican and minority leader.
Some senators tried to amend the bill to provide compensation for lost income to the affected watermen, who have invested tens of thousands of dollars in dredging equipment. The chamber voted down the proposal.
"They're not wealthy people, but they have invested a lot of money to them, and now they won't be able to use their rigs," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, adding that compensating businesses harmed by legislation would not be unprecedented. He pointed out that the General Assembly allocated millions of dollars several years ago to help tobacco farmers shift to new crops.
Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, said that while watermen meant no harm, their actions have harmed the bays. "They actually are hurting the ecology," she said. "In a way, maybe we ought to charge them damages for what they've done."