The scene opened in a crowded hearing room in Annapolis. The first two bills to be heard had come and gone quickly. The crowd was growinga little restless.
Then Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore City, chairman of the Senate Economic and Environmental Matters Committeesaid, "And now the one that everyone is waiting for: Senate Bill 575."
The game had begun.
I'm certain that everyone is aware that Senate Bill 575 is the Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen's Association-supported legislation that would accomplish two major actions: It would give the striped bass, or rockfish, game fish status, and it would stop all commercial striped bass fishing.
The bill would cause other things to happen, such as raising money to soften the blow on the commercial fishermen, but basically, SB 575 is designed to put the commercial striped bass fisherman out of business. Sen. Michael J. Collins, D-Baltimore County, introduced the bill.
Now it was time for the heavyweights. Five corporate-lawyer-looking gentlemen in three-piece suits picked up their graphs and printed testimony and came forth to testify. These were the MSSA leaders and strategists.
First to testify was Bruce Bereano, the lobbyist who wanted to assure everyone that SB 575 was not an anti-watermen's bill. ThenPresident Fred Mears gave a good speech, much better than two years ago, when MSSA first introduced its game-fish bill.
The basis of the battle is the age-old question, "Is it fair that a few commercial fishermen catch alarge number of fish for resale to the public?"
Testimony was given on how much more money the state would receive if the rockfish were a game fish, how aquaculture could handle any market demand for rockfish -- and a few cheap shots were taken at the commercial fishermen, likening them to buffalo hunters and whalers.
Then came the opposition. Jim Peck, assistant secretary for natural resources, quickly shot down most of the issues raised by MSSA, including the economic importance of the striper as a game fish.
You see, the difference is an economic impact against an economic value. Before you dismiss this whole thing as one economist arguing his theory against another, there appears to be some basis. I don't think the MSSA's economic argument for the fish is completely canceled out, but it is not nearly asstrong as before.
Pete Jensen, director of fisheries for the Tidewater Administration, said the DNR does not support eliminating one striped bass user group in favor of another. He said the current striped bass management program, which includescommercial fishermen, is working very well. He also quoted Gov. William Donald Schaefer as saying, "Everyone should get their fair share of the resource."
And then Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, totally dismantled MSSA's attack. He talked of real-world values and where a "little bit of money to some is a great deal of money to others."And where allowing some watermen to fish commercially took pressure off others' clamming and oystering so that all could get a better price for their products.
Then came wave after wave of proponents andopponents. The Maryland Bass Anglers Sportsman Society for the bill,the Maryland Charter Boat Association against it and so on and so on.
At the end of the hearing I asked MSSA Executive Director Rich Novatney what he thought. He said, "It could go either way." Simns thought it went the water men's way.
In a week to 10 days, the committee will vote on the bill to see if it passes on to the full Senate or dies in committee. If it passes the Senate, the bill goes to the House and starts all over in the Environmental Matters Committee.
I sometimes question the importance of testimony at these hearings. Some of the committee members were not present, one member floated around the hear
ing room chatting with other members during the testimony and some never asked a question.
If the results were to be based on testimony I believe the watermen would have won, but only time will tell.
Bob Spore is a Coast Guard-licensed charter boat captainfrom Pasadena. His Outdoors column appears every Friday and Sunday in The Anne Arundel County Sun.