Legislative yield couldn't fill a crab pot

ON THE BAY

April 02, 1994|By TOM HORTON

As the 1994 Maryland General Assembly heads toward its midnight close on April 11, let's look first at the bright side for impending Chesapeake Bay legislation.

It won't take many paragraphs.

Rushing toward approval is an obscure measure that would bypass the normal two-year wait for a crabbing license for anyone "pardoned after incarceration for a criminal offense."

It's solely to help Kirk Bloodsworth, the Eastern Shore waterman mistakenly imprisoned for a 1984 murder in Baltimore County and pardoned last December by the governor. May his pots always be full of No. 1 jimmies.

The other sure winner is a bill to designate the second Sunday in June Bernie Fowler Day, in honor of the retiring senator from Calvert County who has labored so hard on behalf of his native Patuxent River.

For years, Bernie and a few friends have staged a June wade-in, hoping the water has cleared enough to walk out chest deep and see his toes, as he could when he was a boy. Bernie and the Patuxent richly deserve the recognition. I just hope the wade-in doesn't assume such "official" proportions as to spoil what has been a wonderfully informal, family picnic, bring-the-kids type of event.

After those two unanimous hand-clappers, the situation gets more complicated, and mostly grimmer.

"Progress has been marginal," says Del. Brian Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who has seen the Environmental Matters Committee on which he serves kill or gut several key bills.

"It seems like a lot of members are all for saving the bay, but not right now, not if it costs money, not if it requires anybody to give up anything," he says.

Environmental groups have spent a lot of energy this session stalling a Schaefer administration bill that would give Maryland primary authority -- now shared with the federal government -- for protecting nontidal wetlands.

The goal is a worthy one, to streamline the cumbersome permit process regulating projects that impact these vital habitats and pollution filters.

Streamlining would make life less burdensome for property owners and businesses. It should help environmental managers shift the focus to the merits of wetlands, instead of the bureaucratic hassles they sometimes cause.

Until now, the state's proposed takeover has had enough flaws to deserve to fail. Environmentalists point out that it removes protection for endangered species and weakens the public's right to intervene.

It also seems possible that the state might further delegate wetlands authority to every county, which could create an impossible mess for enforcement.

As of this week, the state is putting on a full-court press, trying to amend the bill enough to win over environmental objections, which otherwise will probably prove fatal to passage.

Things will likely go down to the wire with the wetlands bill. If it passes, environmentalists probably will feel like they won -- but only marginally.

Maybe the most significant piece of bay legislation moving toward passage is a new law to regulate crabbing. I say "maybe," because it has been amended so furiously that I'm not sure anyone knows precisely everything it does at this point.

Still, it appears to make a serious start at capping the number of commercial crabbing and finfishing licenses the state will issue for the bay.

I still have doubts about the state's ability to enforce some of the bill's limits, such as the number of crab pots watermen use; but a wide range of environmentalists and fisheries interests are supporting it.

If it succeeds, as advertised, in curbing the growing pressure on the bay's crabs, it will mark one of the first times anywhere that a state has taken conservative action before a species goes into decline.

Except for a widely supported package of amendments to improve the state's forest protection law, that is about all the positive environmental news from this session.

By one vote, the Senate defeated environmentalists' major bill, to give citizens the right to challenge in court a variety of state-permit decisions, ranging from siting of landfills to the approval of industrial discharges to streams.

Maryland interprets the standing of citizens in such cases more narrowly than most states, to include only those with a financial interest, or adjacent property.

It has created the ironic situation where a developer whose project threatens a bog, or a factory discharging to a stream, can sue over denial of a permit, because it affects them financially; while someone who loves to fish the stream, or bird watch in the bog, has no standing at all.

In a surprise vote, the Senate also killed a bill to license recreational crabbers, requiring them to pay $7, just like those who pursue finfish in the bay.

The loss deprives the Department of Natural Resources of a funding source, and a way to track, for the first time, the considerable impact of recreational crabbers.

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