It's no secret: DNR should open up

OUTDOORS

February 22, 2004|By CANDUS THOMSON

I wasn't there. But if I had been, it wouldn't have been for long.

Imagine, state employees invite Maryland outdoors writers to a state-sponsored lunch at a state building where state-gathered information is going to be shared.

And then some guy acts like fish and critter stuff is a state secret and we're at Los Alamos. This particular employee, who draws a paycheck as a member of the - get this - public information office, tells writers they can't tape what state officials are saying.

Business at the mother ship kept me from the DNR cone of silence. Luckily, four of the 10 writers in attendance had the good sense to walk out.

The half-dozen fish and game managers making presentations at the Feb. 10 briefing are no shrinking violets. Each has testified before legislative committees, made presentations to sportsmen's groups and done interviews with reporters. Most of them have even participated in these briefings before, where tape recorders have been welcomed.

The information concerns trout stocking, leghold traps, black bear season, oysters and the health of the Chesapeake Bay - all stuff Maryland anglers and hunters pay for and deserve to know about.

This incident wouldn't be worth noting unless the bureaucrat in question was acting on orders from higher up, as many of us suspect, given other recent actions.

Over the past several weeks, gubernatorial appointees who serve on the fishing advisory commissions have been blindsided by proposed changes in fisheries management, learning about plans either through the e-grapevine or when a reporter called.

The first case was when DNR proposed raising license fees. The second came with the agency's decision that it wants to restrict the type of fishing on the Susquehanna Flats and other areas near spawning grounds (more about that in a minute).

Not too long ago, interested groups were sent written notices. When we all got modern, the information also was posted on the DNR Web site in a timely manner.

Instead, the license fees were proposed in a bill with no notice. The Flats restrictions - along with the particulars of the public hearing - were slipped into the Maryland Register. Shhh. No need to disturb the paying customers.

Bill Windley deserved a heads-up for two reasons: He's president of the 6,500-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, and he's a member of the governor's Sport Fish Advisory Commission. Yet, he found out about the license increase on the Internet and about the new regulations from a friend.

"Why in the world would they do this without contacting us first?" Windley asked. "Several issues would have been better served by being worked out in a committee with the stakeholders. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."

Belly crawling under the radar by bureaucratic Sneaky Petes seems to be the new modus operandi in fisheries, and it's not winning friends.

Contrast what Fisheries did with the actions of the Wildlife and Heritage folks. Two days ago, the game gurus had a "stakeholder meeting" over lunch to find out what hunters and trappers think of the 2004-05 regulations.

Wow, Wildlife and Heritage serves its constituents pizza and soda while fisheries gives its crowd a blindfold and a cigarette.

Too bad Fisheries' secret agent act overshadows the fact that part of the Flats proposal is on target. It should have been done in 1999, when the area at the mouth of the Susquehanna River was opened to catch-and-release striper fishing.

The proposed regulation would require the use of non-offset circle hooks unless the hook is an intrinsic part of the lure, and would prohibit the use of fish as bait or lures longer than 6 inches. The rules would apply from March 1 to May 3.

The Flats is adjacent to one of the East Coast's premier striper spawning grounds. We don't have to think back too far to recall a time when only our breath was bated, as we waited through a five-year moratorium to rebuild the dwindling population. Protecting that water should be Job No. 1 of DNR and anglers.

Fish-friendly circle hooks and artificial lures were exactly what former Fisheries chief Bob Bachman envisioned in 1998, when the Flats plan was drafted. Unfortunately, he didn't put it in writing.

The result is that the more lethal J-hooks remain popular, despite research that shows they defeat the catch-and-release aspect of the Flats season.

While the circle hooks regulation is dead on target, the proposed rules on bait and lure length should be dead on arrival.

There's no denying that in the past two years more anglers have been using bait when spring runoff turns the Flats mocha.

But hooks, not bait, kill fish. If you require circle hooks, the rest should take care of itself.

It seems that the new regs are built on worries: that Flats fishing is moving away from Bachman's plan; that live bait will lead to chumming; that anglers using 10-inch plugs are illegally targeting stripers under the guise of bass fishing.

Change isn't necessarily evil. If you don't want chumming, put that in writing. And if you want to stop illegal fishing, hire more fish cops (you're going to need them anyway if you pass these restrictions).

Here's one worry DNR tries to avoid discussing: mom-and-pop tackle shops rely heavily on bait sales to pay their bills. They're already struggling against the big-box stores run by out-of-state corporations that sell gear cheaper and advertise heavily. These bait restrictions would drive many of them out of business.

What would Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. say to that anti-business attitude?

If you would like to comment on the proposed regulations, which would take effect April 12, DNR has several options. Mail them to Gina Hunt or Tamara O'Connell, Fisheries Service, Tawes State Office Building, B-2, 580 Taylor Avenue, Annapolis 21401; call 410-260-8260; fax 410-260-8278, or email tloconnell@dnr.state.md.us.

The deadline is March 8.

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