Late last month, the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association and four other fishermen's organizations filed suit "to compel the Department of Natural Resources to enforce an existing, explicit law that bans the use of monofilament gill nets of any description in the bay and its tributaries."
What brought about the suit was DNR's decision last year to allow as many as eight commercial fishermen to use a controversial drift gill net to catch mostly spot, croaker and sea trout during the summer.
The controversial net, called multifilament because it is built of multiple, twisted strands of monofilament, has caused a stir among recreational fishermen, who fear that it is far more effective than traditional nets used by Maryland's commercial fishermen.
In Maryland, nets built from single strands of monofilament are illegal; nets built from multiple strands of traditional nylon have been legal for many years, and the new multiple-strand monofilament net was ruled acceptable by the state attorney general's office last spring.
The MSSA has contended that monofilament, whether in single-strand or multiple-strand configurations, is illegal in net form and cites a bill passed by the General Assembly in 1963 that prohibited monofilament gill nets of any kind in bay waters.
The American Bass Association of Maryland, Maryland Bass Federation, Mid-Atlantic Council of Trout Unlimited and the Maryland Aquatic Resources Coalition are the fishermen's organizations that have joined with the MSSA to fight the use of the new nets.
According to the MSSA, the danger of the new gear is that the "multi-ply nets have the same rigidity as monofilament and can act as phantom fish killers for decades if untended or lost."
William P. Jensen, director of fisheries for DNR, recently said that in the past six years, only one gill net has been lost in Maryland waters, and it was recovered the next day.
"As far as we are concerned, it is impossible to lose [the net]," said Jensen. "It just doesn't happen.
"Staked or [permanently] anchored nets are illegal in Maryland, and commercial fishermen must fish drift nets, stay with them and bring them back when they come in."
The MSSA contends that the new net is invisible, a "ghost net," that will increase by-catch of fish, turtles and birds and that the summer fishery takes place when water conditions are worst for by-catch survival.
Last summer, DNR tested the three types of nets -- the traditional multi-strand nylon, illegal single-strand monofilament, and the multi-strand monofilament.
"We found very little difference among them in catchability," said Jensen. "The nylon nets did seem to hang up more crabs and jellyfish and were harder to get fish out of, but except in terms of handling of the nets, there was little difference among them."
The MSSA contends that the multi-strand monofilament nets will not lose their shape and sink, should they be lost.
Jensen said that without proper weighting on the bottom and proper floats on the tops, all nets lose their shape.
In a statement, MSSA president Dale P. Dirks said that despite the 1963 law, DNR has allowed commercial fishermen "to set over 10 miles of a new, multi-ply monofilament gill net to exploit just recovering bay species such as croaker, sea trout, spot and flounder."
The fear is that the eight-man fishery that was allowed last summer will expand, and Jensen said that is one possibility.
"We are continuing to look at the issues," said Jensen, adding that he expects the General Assembly to discuss the use of the nets.
It is possible, Jensen said, that the small fishery with the new nets will be reinstated this summer, and if it is it will be done with the approval of the state and after public hearings.
Said Dirks: "It's hard to imagine, when other states up and down the East Coast are making efforts to restrict the wholesale harvest of their public resource, that Maryland's Department of Natural Resources is seeking every opportunity to facilitate a further degradation of tenuous bay species."
Said Jensen: "When you look at the overall catch numbers, who is catching the most fish is overwhelmingly the recreational fishermen. It is a few thousand pounds commercial compared to hundreds of thousands of pounds recreational."