Panel votes to help bay grasses Bill would ban clammers' dredges from crabs' habitat

'It's a good compromise'

March 14, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Faced with evidence that commercial clamming gear is damaging delicate underwater grasses in Maryland bays, a Senate committee has approved an emergency bill to ban the clammers' dredges from all of the state's grass beds.

The bill, which passed the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee yesterday, has the support of environmentalists and watermen. One key legislator predicted it will become law by early June.

That would be a boon to crabbers, who rely on the underwater grasses to nurture young blue crabs and protect them from predators. The grasses also provide crucial shelter to dozens of types of young fish.

Environmentalists praised the bill, though it has been stripped of the buffer zones around the grasses that they had originally sought. "I think it's a good compromise," said Thomas Grasso, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, has called the delicate grasses "the lifeblood" of Chesapeake Bay fisheries. Once reduced to 29,800 acres of bay bottom, the grasses have rebounded in recent years and now cover about 63,000 acres. The goal of the multistate Chesapeake Bay Program is to restore them to 114,000 acres by 2005.

Last summer, biologists in Virginia and Maryland found evidence that hydraulic clam dredges were damaging grass beds in Chincoteague Bay near Ocean City and on the lower Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake, not far from a prime crabbing area.

The dredges are designed to expose clams, which can be buried a foot deep or more. They aim a strong spray of water at the bottom, blasting loose up to 18 inches of sediment. When the dredges are used among grass beds, they uproot the plants, biologists say.

The bill endorsed by the Senate committee would ban hydraulic dredging in grass beds in the Chesapeake and Maryland's coastal bays. An early version of the bill included a 150-foot buffer zone to make it easier to enforce the law, and the state Department of Natural Resources pushed for a tougher version that would have given the grasses room to expand.

But after dozens of the state's 220 or so clammers protested that such a bill would take away prime clamming grounds and spell the end of their $1.5 million-a-year fishery, the committee eliminated the buffer zones. The new version gives the DNR authority to declare certain areas especially sensitive and extend the ban to adjacent waters.

"We couldn't reach agreement on a buffer," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs an environment subcommittee. "But we all agreed that this is a reasonable first step, that we can get something done this year, so let's just do what we can."

Frosh said he expects the bill to pass the Senate easily. "There's no opposition to it anymore," he said. Frosh said Del. Ron Guns, chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee in the House of Delegates, has promised to support a companion bill. Guns, a Cecil County Democrat, could not be reached for comment.

Pub Date: 3/14/98

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