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The Maryland General Assembly is deeply divided over a proposed law that would transform fisheries management in the state. Bill 145 would allow the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, to open, close or modify the fishing season with 48 hours notice. Now, an already tense policy battle is morphing into a political drama, after lawmakers held up the nomination of the interim director of DNR. We get the latest from Annapolis.
- Tim Wheeler Reporter, The Baltimore Sun
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, it's Food Wednesday, Chinese New Year's auspicious food traditions. But first, this week in Maryland, a high stakes food fight has morphed into a political drama. Maryland's professional fishermen have been battling a bill in the general assembly that would limit how they do business. Bill 145 would give the Department of Natural Resources the power to open, close or modify the fishing season with just two days notice to the state's Watermen.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a move that regulators say is necessary to keep fish populations healthy, but fishermen say Maryland's top natural resource is official, now up for confirmation in the legislature, is bullying them to get his way. So, how have the politics of this issue become, so, well, fishy? And how would new regulations affect business on the Chesapeake and what ends up on your plate? Joining us to have this conversation is Tim Wheeler. He is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He covers the Chesapeake Bay and environmental issues for the paper. Tim Wheeler, thank you for joining us.
MR. TIM WHEELERGlad to be here, Kojo. Thanks.
NNAMDITim, let's bite this story off a piece at a time. What does this bill say about when, where and how much fish Maryland's Watermen can catch?
WHEELERWell, it's a bill that says, in essence, that the department could, you know, change the terms under which fish could be caught, basically opening and closing seasons or, you know, raising quotas and that sort of thing by public notice. Essentially putting out a notice giving 48 hours heads up that they're changing the terms. That's actually, that's a current practice. They've been doing that for some time now. I mean, I just looked. There was another notice up just yesterday in which they were reopening. They've been sort of opening for very short periods through the winter.
WHEELERThe fishery for striped bass, our favorite local fin fish here, also known as rock fish. So they're reopening it again for a couple -- for a day or two. They have some allowable quota yet, that has yet to be caught, and -- so, they wanted to reopen it. But, the watermen have been unhappy with this practice. They say it has also been used to cut them off, and to deprive them of catch at times. And with little notice, have left them on land without a chance to earn a living for a period of time.
NNAMDISo, if the Department of Natural Resources has been doing this for a while, what is the need for this? Officials at that department are calling it a housekeeping bill. What were the regulations under which they were doing this before?
WHEELERWell, that's where it gets a little murky. You need a law degree, I think, to sort this out.
NNAMDIThat's my impression.
WHEELERThe explanation is that, you know, the -- one of the attorney generals looked at this and said they thought that the current regulations authorized the NR to make changes, you know, through public notices rather than having to go through standard process of, you know, proposing a regulation, taking public comment. And here, in Maryland, you have to also send proposed regulations through a joint legislative committee, just for their notice, to look at it. And if objections are raised, the lawmakers want to hear about it, they can ask for a hearing on it, and ask for public comment.
WHEELERAnd emergency regulations, ones that you want to put in right away, this committee, under Maryland law, has the authority to essentially veto emergency regulations and make you go through a more protracted regulatory process. So, the 48 hour (unintelligible) is quite a convenience. As I say, they've been using it for these sort of short term decisions like this. And the Attorney General said, in essence, even though they thought the regulations allowed it, it might not be a bad idea to clarify it. That's the official version, anyway.
WHEELERThe Watermen see something darker here. They've had a long history of, you know, of friction with the regulators. Not happy with some of the restrictions that have been put on them, or, you know, for catching oysters, crabs, rock fish and menhaden is another sore spot. And so they tend to think that this gives the department too much leeway, too much power. They want to have the opportunity to be heard by their legislators if they don't like something.
NNAMDIWell, with that explanation, you have now officially passed the Maryland bar, Tim Wheeler. You can now practice law in the state of Maryland. But the Watermen, the Watermen are opposed to this, even though it has been the practice in recent years. But I guess this was their opportunity, if you will, to oppose it in the legislature?
WHEELERYes, there was a bill put in by, you know, it was essentially a departmental bill, though it was actually proposed, I gathered, too late for the, you know, for the rules down here to come in as a departmental bill. So it was actually put in by the chairs of the two House and Senate committees that deal with environmental and fisheries issues. And when the bill came up for a hearing, hearings in both chambers, last week, they turned out in force. There were dozens of them here to voice their unhappiness over regulations. This particular bill, and over the, what they believe are the, sort of, the unfair treatment of them by DNR.
NNAMDIWould this bill put restrictions on me and others who come into the state to do recreational fishing?
WHEELERNo. This was -- this primarily applied to commercial activity, I believe. And, you know, how does this affect the average consumer? It's hard to say. Obviously, if limits are put on how many striped bass can be caught, then you might see fewer of them in the market. You might pay a higher price for them, for instance.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Tim Wheeler. He joins us by phone. He's a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He covers the Chesapeake Bay and environmental issues for the paper. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Should restrictions on fishing be as tight as possible to keep the supply healthy? 800-433-8850. Do you think limits on fishing are too tight on the eastern shore? You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tim, the politics of this bill got a little, pardon the pun, fishy last week, when the Maryland Senate delayed a vote to confirm Joseph Gill as Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. Why is Joseph Gill now under fire?
WHEELERWell, that's an outgrowth of these hearings, actually. Things got a bit touchy after the House hearing. The watermen report that, or at least the President of the Maryland's Watermen's Association, one of the major commercial fishing groups here, reported that he and his wife got into a conversation after the hearing, with Secretary Gill, and they contend that he told them that if the bill didn't pass, the department would get very conservative in its fishing allocations. And that they would cut catch quotas and the words that Robert T. Brown Sr., the President of the Maryland Watermen's Association said Secretary Gill used were, I will hurt you.
WHEELERAnd repeated that once. And I talked with Mr. Brown. He said that he didn't really take that as a personal threat, but he felt that he was -- that the watermen, in general, were being threatened by that, and he thought that was inappropriate. He complained to legislators, wrote a letter to one of the chairs of one of the committees. And that letter was widely distributed. It prompted Senators when the bill would have confirmed all of the Governor's appointments. The last legislature came up in the Senate chamber on Friday.
WHEELERThere's a long (unintelligible) of all types. Normally, there's a vote by consent. There's, essentially, a, you know, an all in favor say I kind of thing. But, if there are people whom you stand up and you say you want so and so off the list, then that's what happened. Senator Colburn from the eastern shore got up and recounted this alleged threat from -- that the Watermen's Association President had reported, and a couple, I guess it was three other Senators also spoke up. And the nomination was pulled out of the list and held until February 14th.
NNAMDIWell, you talked to Secretary Joe Gill. What did he say?
WHEELERWell, he says that he didn't say -- he didn't use the words that Mr. Brown said he used. And he certainly didn't intend to be threatening Mr. Brown or Watermen in general. He said his general message was that if the department does not have the kind of regulatory flexibility to change some of the seasons and the catch conditions on public notice, on short notice like that, that they would indeed have to be more cautious to avoid, you know, overfishing. And in that way, that ultimately, that might require them to close a fishery when the allowable catch had not been reached, and that would hurt all watermen.
NNAMDINevertheless, the chorus against Gill's confirmation seems to be getting louder. You mention letters of concern from (unintelligible) fishers, Kent County. What's next for Gill's confirmation?
WHEELERWell, you know, the Senators there all said they were not present, because this exchange actually happened over on the House side, and it happened after an official hearing, so it wasn't, you know, publicly recorded. But they expressed concern about it. And it has been a topic of some discussion here at the State House, I understand. There have been a couple press releases issued. I saw one from a Republican legislator the other day, you know, challenging his confirmation, saying that it was inappropriate.
WHEELERAnd a petition drive was started -- an online petition drive calling on Governor O'Malley to withdraw his nomination. It appears to have several hundred sign ons. The sponsor of it was somebody from the eastern shore, where, obviously, there are a lot of folks who are tied to the fishing community, and are partial to it.
NNAMDITim Wheeler, what has been Joe Gill's history with the Watermen? Has there been some antagonistic history preceding this alleged remark?
WHEELERWell, I mean, there's been, as I said, there's been some friction with the department over policies, over regulations. They seem to feel that they have less of a relationship with him than his predecessor. There were frictions with -- his predecessor was John Griffin, who was promoted, I guess you'd say, from Natural Resources Secretary to the Governor's Chief of Staff last spring. And that's when Mr. Gill took over as Secretary. He had been, for many years, the Assistant Attorney General.
WHEELERYou know, the council to the Department of Natural Resources, then was picked as a Deputy Secretary, and served in that role for two, three years, I believe it was, before becoming Secretary. So, he had a lot of experience there.
NNAMDIAnd what's next for this bill, given all this drama surrounding it?
WHEELERWell, it, in fact, may be dead, at this point. The Senate sponsor of the bill, the Chair in the Senate Committee, Senator Joan Carter Conway from Baltimore, who happens to be, you know, come from a commercial fishing family herself, she told me last Friday. She decided that she was gonna pull the bill. So, she pulled the Senate bill. She pulled -- she was the sponsor, so she could, you know, had the right to withdraw it, and she did. She said she had, you know, not realized there was so much controversy around this bill.
WHEELERShe had put it in as a courtesy to the department under the understanding it was just a housekeeping bill. And she said that she was not inclined to reintroduce it herself, unless the department and the Watermen could reach some accord.
NNAMDIAnd if that does not happen, if the bill is not reintroduced, what does it mean for the consumers of the -- of Maryland blue crabs and Maryland rock fish and everything else?
WHEELERWell, your guess is as good as mine, Kojo. It may be -- I mean, it sounds like the department believes that they're authorized to do these notices, you know, short notice changes anyway. One would assume they would continue with that. There is, you know, the added wrinkle -- the curve ball, if you will, a lawsuit pending against the department over its regulation and the catch quotas and how they administer them. Menhaden, this little fish that nobody really eats but is highly priced here in the Chesapeake Bay...
WHEELERYeah, it's bait, exactly. Here in Maryland it's primarily as bait. Most of the fish, Menhaden that are caught are caught in Virginia. And they are ground up into animal food and into diet health supplements for people. It's good Omega 3 fatty acid in there that's good for your heart I gather. But there's great concern about the abundance of those in the bay. And the states were cutting back on the catch of those. And the Maryland watermen were not happy with how that was done so they went to court challenging that decision. And that's still pending in Dorchester County.
NNAMDITim Wheel. He reports on the environment and the Chesapeake Bay. He's been focusing mainly on Maryland's environment since moving here in 1983 from West Virginia. Tim Wheeler reports for the Baltimore Sun. Thank you so much for joining us.
WHEELERMy pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, Food Wednesday, Chinese New Years' auspicious and delicious food traditions. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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