Commercial fishing net bill stirs waters in Annapolis 'Gear issue' arguments are heard, but forwarding HB 71 is another matter

February 29, 1996|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Members of the House Environmental Matters Committee sat yesterday afternoon to hear arguments for and against House Bill 71, a measure that would ban the use of a controversial fishing net in all Maryland waters.

After more than two hours of testimony, questions and answers, representatives of recreational, charter-boat and commercial fishermen and the Department of Natural Resources had agreed to disagree -- and it was anyone's guess whether HB 71 would be forwarded by Environmental Matters.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Michael Weir, Baltimore County, would ban monofilament/multi-ply gill nets, and bases its stand on a law passed by the state legislature in 1963. The 1963 law (HB 363), which stands apparently unchanged after more than 30 years, prohibits the use of gill nets made of monofilament of any description.

In 1993, the Department of Natural Resources authorized the use of monofilament/multi-ply gill nets, basing its policy on an opinion by an assistant state's attorney assigned to the department. That ruling, requested by a net manufacturer, found that the new, multi-ply nets are dissimilar to single-strand monofilament nets and therefore legal.

Since that ruling, a summer fishery limited to no more than eight commercial fishermen in Maryland's lower bay waters has been allowed primarily for spot, croaker, and this winter, the nets have been allowed in the commercial gill net season for rockfish. Proponents of the bill estimate there are more than 100 commercial rockfish fishermen using the new nets.

The Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, an organization of more than 7,000 recreational fishermen in the state, contends that the monofilament/multi-ply gear is a "ghost net" in the water, invisible to fish and therefore extremely effective.

The MSSA also contends that the use of these nets poses an inordinate threat in the summer fishery, when warm-water temperatures increase bycatch mortality, or deaths of other, untargeted fish.

The MSSA is pushing HB 71 as a conservation measure. The new nets, officers of MSSA said, have a life span of up to 50 years and can catch and kill fish indiscriminately through that span should a waterman lose his nets.

Corbin C. Cogswell, legislative chairman for MSSA, said yesterday before the committee that HB 71 is not a matter of determining who gets to catch more fish.

"This bill does not dispute the right of legal nets on Chesapeake Bay," Cogswell said. "This bill will not put men out of work. . . . This is a gear issue."

The "loophole" that allows use of the new gill net "was created by DNR without consulting the legislature," Cogswell said.

William P. Jensen, DNR director of fisheries, said DNR was present at yesterday's hearing not "to insist monofilament be legal," but to say there is a difference between single-strand monofilament and multiple-strand monofilament nets.

Last summer, DNR ran a study on lower bay creeks with legal nylon nets, illegal single-strand monofilament nets and monofilament/multi-ply nets.

"The results of the study are that all three types are very similar in catching ability," Jensen said. "This [new] net is not invisible. In the water, the knots and cords take up color."

Bycatch mortality in the study, Jensen said, was about 8 percent, an acceptable figure to fisheries managers.

The MSSA disputes the netting study, saying that did not take place in the open bay where the summer fishery is allowed.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said that in certain situations, such as warm summer weather, the new nets are easier to use than traditional nylon nets.

"But watermen don't want bycatch," said Simns, adding that not only does bycatch hurt the ecosystem but clearing the nets means more work for the fisherman. "That takes time and costs money."

Simns also disputed a contention by backers of the bill that the new net will cause the expansion of a summer fishery.

"The net is not driving the fishery," Simns said. "The fish have come back and they are driving it."

The Maryland Charterboat Association, which often has been politically allied with the watermen, yesterday offered TC compromise aimed at serving the interests of all parties.

The charter-boat association proposed, either through legislation or discussion, to make the new nets legal in winter and illegal in summer, when all three groups share the same waters.

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