Fishery aid bill may be ahead of its time


March 11, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

After years of watching the quality of fisheries management and research deteriorate as money and staff melted away, a group representing some of the state's most influential fishermen has decided to take the lead in putting the agency back on a strong footing.

The Fishery Management Reform Act, sponsored by state Sen. John Astle, calls for raising saltwater and freshwater license fees and requiring a 50 percent match from the state's general fund that would put $3.75 million in the Department of Natural Resources budget.

It's about time. But in their rush to fix a long-festering problem, the bill's backers might be ahead of their time. First, the nuts and bolts.

If Senate Bill 1012 is approved, the fee for residential non-tidal licenses would nearly double to $20.50. Residential Chesapeake Bay Sportfishing licenses would rise to $15 from $9. A bay boat decal would increase $10 to $50. The bill would take effect July 1 and would end in three years.

The bill stipulates that new revenue and matching money would stay in DNR.

I know some of you don't like the idea of increasing the cost of licenses, but the fishing fairy is not going to slip a lump of cash under DNR Secretary John Griffin's pillow in exchange for an old molar.

And skeptics say they want to see fishing quality improve before they'll give DNR more of their money.

Attention, big spenders: The plain fact is, a lot of fees haven't increased in years. That means DNR, an agency that relies heavily on the revenue from the folks who fish and hunt, hasn't kept pace with rising energy costs, employee benefits and wear and tear on its equipment.

Creating DNR's precarious position was a bipartisan effort. During a recession in the early 1990s, Democrats slashed the agency's budget. Although rosier times returned, the money did not. And even though the Ehrlich administration touted itself as a friend to sportsmen, it never really put its money where its mouth was. DNR's budget increased just over 2 percent in the past five years.

A report prepared by the departing Ehrlich administration laid out the financial and manpower problems. The O'Malley transition team concurred with the findings.

Anyone who says DNR is doing its job simply is choosing to ignore the facts.

Luckily, not everyone buried his head in the sand. Several organizations, working under the umbrella of the Maryland Aquatic Resources Council, had input into SB 1012: the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, Trout Unlimited, Maryland Bass Federation, the Federation of Fly Fishermen Mid-Atlantic Council and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Coastal Conservation Association Maryland is supporting the concept.

In return for their financial support, recreational anglers would get the majority of the seats on a 14-member task force to help update fisheries management policies, hold the agency accountable and issue a progress report to the governor by Dec. 1, 2008. A panel of fisheries scientists would review the findings.

The bill is innovative and sweeping - and might be slightly premature, say by one year. Understandably, its backers wanted to move quickly after the election and confirmation of fresh leadership at DNR. Call it the old "strike-while-the-iron-is-hot" strategy. There's also a serious concern that the agency might lose some of its top fisheries scientists if conditions don't improve.

But in rushing to get the job done before the Legislature goes home in April, those pushing SB 1012 haven't really built a critical mass of support in the rank-and-file fishing community. As a result, there's been a fair bit of grumbling, some "grassy knoll" suspicions about motives and some hard feelings about being left out of the process.

Even folks who realize the problem and support the concept have told me privately that the timing might be off.

That's not the way to a fresh start, nor is it the way to build lasting relationships.

It's been a rocky couple of years between DNR and the recreational community over issues involving fisheries management and allocation. The yellow perch situation, which has festered since Parris Glendening was in office, is just one example.

But MARC members say they are willing to try to patch things up with Gov. Martin O'Malley and Griffin. Supporting higher license fees in return for more say in management is their way of opening the door.

The new administration has not indicated a position on SB 1012, but before the November election, candidate O'Malley signaled his interest in overhauling DNR's financial and policy-making structure:

"Better fishing for recreational and charter anglers would increase fishing participation, add new advocates for healthy waterways, build license sales that support essential conservation work of our agencies and greatly benefit local tourism economies," he said. "Current evaluation places too much emphasis on outdated catch history as a basis for allocation. We should work with the state legislature and all stakeholder groups to modernize our fisheries management laws, regulations and policies."

Eric Schwaab, the new deputy DNR secretary who once managed the Fisheries Service, is optimistic that the details of SB 1012 can be worked out.

"If these groups are invested, this is a value-added proposition," he said. "We want to be much more open with policy decisions, budget priorities and fiscal circumstances."

The backers of SB 1012 have the right lure and the right strategy. It's time to add the hallmark of all good fishermen: patience.

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