Chanting "No more nets" and "Save our rockfish," 750 chilly sport fishermen marched on the State House in Annapolis last night in support of legislation to protect rockfish from commercial fishing.
The turnout was several hundred less than predicted, but cold weather and brisk winds kept many from making the one-mile walk from Navy Stadium to the steps of the State House.
The demonstration, organized by the 7,000-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, was aimed at convincing legislators there is broad support for SB 575, which would grant game fish status to rockfish, or striped bass.
A close vote is expected on the bill, which is slated for a public hearing at 1 p.m. tomorrow before the Senate Economic and Environmental Matters Committee. On Thursday, another bill to ban gill netting of rockfish will be the subject of a hearing before the House Environmental Matters Committee.
Last night, demonstrators heard several brief though encouraging messages. For one, Del. W. Ray Huff, D-Anne Arundel, predicted that rockfish will become a game fish.
"It has to be done this year," said Del. E. Farrell Maddox, D-Balto. Co.
Richard Novotny, executive director of the association, claimed that game-fish status was the only way to save rockfish, which were protected by a fishing moratorium for six years before limited fishing in late 1990 and early this year.
"If we allow gill netters and other commercial fishermen to exploit the resource like in years past we will never have rockfishing again," Novotny warned.
More than 30,000 people have signed petitions circulated by the association in support of the Senate bill, and the organization is mounting a telephone campaign to urge committee members in both chambers to approve the respective bills.
The legislation would ban all commercial fishing for rockfish and the sale within Maryland of all except striped bass raised in aquaculture operations. It would establish a Watermen's Economic Revitalization Fund and a Watermen's Conservation Corps that over five years would compensate watermen for lost fishing opportunity, buy their gear, assist in loans or grants to convert to other fisheries and grant priority in gaining state contracts related to Chesapeake Bay resources.
The fund would be financed by license fees for rockfish -- $15 for an individual sport fisherman, $30 for a fishing boat, and $125 for a charter boat.