ANNAPOLIS – Watermen converged on the State House on Tuesday to voice their support for bills that would drastically diminish the Department of Natural Resources’ ability to regulate oyster harvesting.
The watermen say they do not trust the department, and believe the governor’s proposed Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan will destroy their livelihoods. Under Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal, some areas that are productive and open to oyster harvesting now would be designated as oyster sanctuaries.
Bunky Chance, of Bozman, said he and other watermen want an opportunity to sit down with the department and discuss their ideas.
“As it stands right now, the DNR can snap their fingers … we could be unemployed (tomorrow) without any voice in the process,” he said.
Tuesday, Chance and dozens of other watermen gathered outside the state house with posters supporting their cause, then headed to the Senate Environmental Matters Committee hearing about the bills.
One bill, sponsored by Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, and Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Mid-Shore, would prohibit the department from designating any new oyster sanctuaries before Oct. 1, 2011. Otherwise, the governor’s plan could go into effect as early as May.
Pipkin said the bill would allow more time for serious discussion about the proposed plan.
“If we get it wrong, we’ll drive people off of the water, out of business,” he said.
Another bill, also sponsored by Pipkin and Colburn, would give county oyster committees the ability to allow power dredging in certain areas.
The bill “comes out a sense of frustration in the process,” Pipkin said. Oystermen who work the waters “feel their ideas are being ignored.”
Giving the authority to designate dredging areas to oyster committees would “give these powers to the people who work these waters every day,” Pipkin said.
A third bill, sponsored by Colburn, would take the department’s ability to designate oyster sanctuaries away and give it to the legislature.
John Griffin, secretary of natural resources, said the department opposes the bills because they restrict its ability to regulate the oyster fishery.
“The state bottom is owned by the taxpayers of the state, not by any individual,” he said.
The oyster population has been stuck at about 1 percent of historic levels for years, Griffin said, and the proposed plan is an effort to fix that.
“If you want to maintain the status quo, you should support these bills,” he told the committee.
Griffin stressed that he did not want to harm the oyster industry or drive people out of business. He said the proposal is just that — a proposal — and members of the public, including watermen, have had the opportunity to comment on it.
The reason the department did not sit down with the oystermen and try to come to an agreement about the proposed sanctuary areas before proposing them is because those types of efforts have not worked in the past, he said.
“The industry knew where we were heading with this plan,” Griffin said. If the department had tried to get everyone’s input initially, “we’d be where we’ve always been: nowhere.”
But Chance and other watermen blamed the department for the low oyster population, and asked for the ability to try their own methods.
“We see these resources as being mismanaged to the 1 percent level,” Chance said. “We’re here to tell the DNR clearly: We’re not going away.”
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, told the watermen they must be open to compromise.
“We’re not trying to take your livelihood away,” said Conway, the chairman of the Education, Health & Environmental Matters Committee.
But if something doesn’t happen soon, she said, there will be no oysters left.
Keller Longenecker of Bozman, said before the hearing that the watermen do want to preserve — and increase — the oyster population.
“We’re not trying to cut our throats,” he said. “I want my son to be able to work on the water.”
Also Tuesday, the committee heard testimony in support of a bill sponsored by Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, that would allow the department to revoke the oyster license of some fishermen who are cited for oyster poaching.
The bill would set up an administrative hearing process for anyone cited for taking oysters from closed areas, with illegal gear, at illegal times, during closed seasons or from someone else’s leased area, Frosh said. People found guilty would have their oyster license revoked.
“This is a tough bill, but it’s fair,” Frosh said. It “provides protection for the oysters, but … also for the honest oysterman.”