ANNAPOLIS – The Department of Natural Resources must come up with a new plan to determine the legal size limit of hardshell clams, a legislative review committee ruled Thursday.
The Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review Joint Committee took the action in light of complaints from watermen, said Del. John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, committee chairman. Also a factor, Arnick said, was Virginia’s lack of restrictions on the clam fishing and the competitive disadvantage that places on Maryland’s fishermen.
At issue is how to enforce a 30-year-old law prohibiting the fishing of clams smaller than one inch — the legal limit. Watermen have complained that measurement methods varied from DNR officer to DNR officer.
Saying that existing regulations were unclear, several court cases in recent years exonerated fisherman of catching undersized clams, said Dave Blazer, a rule-making official with the DNR.
Those cases, said DNR fisheries expert Peter Jensen, prompted the DNR to issue a rule change explicitly stating how the clams were to be measured — not by length of the flat part of the shell, as watermen prefer, but by clam thickness.
But waterman William Ryan told Arnick’s committee, “This measurement doesn’t work for us.” Clams can’t accurately be measured by their thickness because the dimension changes as the clam opens and closes its shell, he said.
When clams are caught — Ryan said he catches 2,000 to 4,000 a day, and measures each individually — some are only partially closed, exaggerating their actual size. But on the dock, when the official measurement is made, many clams thought to be acceptable become too small, Ryan said.
Fines for undersized clams range from $90 for fewer than 14 to $510 for more than 50, according to state records.
But whatever action the DNR ultimately takes, some watermen and legislators would like to see the law get a second look.
Watermen, Ryan said, question restricting state clam catches to larger clams because the diminutive “small neck” clams are what most people prefer to eat.
And Del. Charles McClenahan, R-Somerset, said he’d prefer a law that didn’t restrict the state’s fisherman from fair competition. “I’d like to see us maintain a uniformity with Virginia,” he said. Blazer, the DNR rule-making official, speculated that clam conservation issues may have been considered when the law was drafted. He said: “You don’t want to harvest a resource until its been able to reproduce and replace itself.” -30-