Legislation could help save Maryland seafood

February 26, 2011|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

The yellow perch was crunchy and flavorful. The oysters — two kinds — were briny and cold. The grilled striped bass with a daub of lemon sauce melted in the mouth.

Those were just some of the delectable local edibles at "A Celebration of Maryland Seafood" last Tuesday night at Eastport's Boatyard Bar and Grill. The $40-a-head eat-a-thon, sponsored by the state, was just the thing to remind folks how good we can have it if we act responsibly.

It also was a reminder of how quickly good things slip away if we get careless.

Because recreational anglers cared and fought in the halls of Annapolis for change in management policy, yellow perch have rebounded. As a result, shoreline anglers from Cecil County to Charles County right now are enjoying perhaps the best fishing in years. Next Saturday is the second annual Yellow Perch Appreciation Day at Cecil County's Northeast Town Park, a free-fishing area with piers and rock embankments that doesn't require a license.

Oysters are a work in progress. The O'Malley administration has put the bivalve at the top of its list of Chesapeake Bay restoration projects by encouraging aquaculture and setting aside sanctuaries where oysters can grow and reproduce. But short-sighted lawmakers from the Eastern Shore seem bent on turning back progress by trying to curtail the growth of sanctuaries. And poachers keep nibbling away at the precious few remaining oysters.

But striped bass, long the mascot for man's ability to reverse greedy behavior, appear in trouble again. Recreational landings have been plunging, a disease is ravaging the adult population, and recreational and commercial interests seem bent on killing all the big spawning fish.

Recreational anglers by the thousands are showing their anger and frustration by signing an online petition to ban almost all nets, both the type of illegal gear used by poachers who captured 12.6 tons of striped bass this month and legal ones.

Anglers' feelings are genuine. But I'm not sure banning legal nets would get us where we need to be.

First, let's support what's already out there that can help fix what's wrong.

Six bills making their way through the General Assembly would increase penalties for poachers of fish and shellfish, give Natural Resources Police the same authority as in other states to inspect commercial boats and business locations, and allow Fisheries Service managers some more say in what type of gear is legal and what is not.

The bills are: HB111, HB273, HB396, SB159, SB635 and SB655. Read them online (mlis.state.md.us). Time is critical. The opposition is focused. If you like what you see, the same website will take you to the e-mail addresses of the members of your county delegation. Let lawmakers know you are watching.

While you're on the General Assembly website, take a look at HB1142, sponsored by Dels. Peter Murphy of Charles County and David Rudolph of Cecil County. The bill would prohibit the manufacture, sale or distribution of a product in Maryland made from processed Atlantic menhaden.

Menhaden are a primary food of striped bass and, like oysters, filter Chesapeake Bay water. For good reason, all Eastern Seaboard states but one — Virginia — have banned the commercial harvest of menhaden by the so-called reduction industry.

Would this bill stop Omega Protein from sucking menhaden out of the Chesapeake and grinding them up for pet food and dietary supplements? No, of course not. But it might give other states the impetus to pursue their own bills and give the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission something to chew on during its March 22 deliberations.

The bill is sitting in the House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee. The chairwoman is Baltimore's Hattie Harrison (410-841-3486; hattie.harrison@house.state.md.us) and the vice chairman is Rudolph Cane (410-841-3427; rudolph.cane@house.state.md.us), who represents Dorchester and Wicomico counties.

Finally, let's talk about the state of Natural Resources Police manpower.

There are about 160 field officers to cover the water, woods and parks of the entire state. That's down 50 percent in the past 10 years. By comparison (and I'm not saying financial support should be shifted), the number of sworn state troopers has declined by just three since 2008.

Since 2007, the State Police academy has graduated 240 new officers while NRP has graduated 46.

A 2009 memo of understanding signed by DNR and State Police after the NRP aviation unit was disbanded by the governor stipulates: "The NRP will coordinate pre-planned law enforcement missions as far in advance as possible" with State Police.

Next thing you know, State Police will insist that poachers make appointments before they steal.

Last year, NRP asked for air support 65 times and State Police cooperated just five times.

"It would have been worse. But after a while, we just stopped asking," said a veteran commander who requested anonymity because the comment was outside the chain of command. "Our small helicopter could get places the big Medivac choppers and airplane can't go. Law enforcement isn't one size fits all."

It is disingenuous for elected and appointed officials to wring their hands over poaching but do little to take the issue head on.

If this keeps up, it won't be long before there won't be any Maryland seafood to celebrate.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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