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.