Wednesday, April 4 – Hydraulic Dredging Ban Resurrected After Compromise

ANNAPOLIS – The on-again, off-again bill that would
prohibit hydraulic dredging for clams and oysters in the Atlantic coastal bays
this week finally emerged from one the most contentious debates in recent
memory and now appears to be close to being enacted into law after an last
minute amendment pushed back the effective date one year.

Over the last few weeks, the bill, sponsored by local
Delegates James Mathias and Norm Conway, soared through the House and passed on
a first vote by the Senate, making its ultimate approval appear to be a sure
thing. Senator Lowell Stoltzfus, who represents the lower shore, then flexed
his political muscle and got the votes needed to apparently kill the bill by a
narrow 26-20 vote on second reading.

However, the freshman Mathias played a few cards of his
own to get the bill back in front of the Senate for another vote this week.
Several amendments to the bill were offered before a final vote by the Senate,
including a plan to compensate watermen and their families that would be
displaced by the dredging ban.

The compensation amendment died on Tuesday and Senate
President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller was prepared to call for a vote on the bill
as submitted when Senator Richard Colburn (D-37) offered a last-minute
amendment to move the effective date back one year from Oct. 1, 2007 to Oct. 1,
2008.

The Senate then adopted the bill with the push-back date
amendment included. The amended bill needs final approval from the House, but
with concurrence from the bill’s sponsors and an overwhelming support for it by
the House the first time around, the final vote appears to be a formality.

Mathias said this week he and Conway have no problem with
the new effective date for the legislation, which will give the handful of
families still dredging for clams and oysters in the coastal bays more time to
adjust to the new law.

“I’m okay with it,” he said. “As sponsors, Norm and I
would have to sign off on the change, and this push-back date isn’t anything
that will cause this bill to die.”

Stoltzfus, who opposed the dredge bill from the beginning
and nearly got it derailed in the last week, agreed the amended bill would be
enacted into law.

“It’s finished for this year, I believe,” he said. “I
think the House will accept the last-minute amendment and approve the change.”

Stoltzfus said he could never remember a bill that’s fate
twisted and turned so many times as the hydraulic dredging prohibition bill did
in the last week or 10 days.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years,” he
said. “This bill had nine lives.”

Mathias said the battle waged by the veteran Stoltzfus
caused him to push the bill and call in a few markers of his own. The end
result of his first real skirmish in the General Assembly was a positive one,
he said.

“We’re very pleased,” he said. “I’m thankful to the
citizens who supported this bill. For the last 30 days, especially the last 10
days, I have been on the phone working this bill.”

Mathias said he supports the bill’s extension, but
cautioned it could signal an effort to buy more time to kill the bill in the
future.

“This is a good faith amendment and we’re okay with it,”
he said. “But we have to keep a watchful eye in the next session to make sure
somebody doesn’t try to derail this.”

In a sense, the issue boiled down to the economic health
of the watermen still engaged in hydraulic dredging versus the overall health
of the coastal bays. While some scientific evidence supports the total ban, the
data was not strong enough to put watermen out of work and threaten their
livelihoods, according to Stoltzfus.

“I know we need to be sensitive to those grass beds,” he
said. “My opposition to a total ban was based on the best science available. If
I had been convinced the science supported a total ban, I would have supported
this bill.”

However, Mathias said he received calls from watermen
supporting the total ban because of the years of irreparable damage caused by
dredging.

“At least one elderly waterman called me to thank me for
pushing this bill to restore our bay bottoms,” he said. “He told me he couldn’t
tell me how much damage to the bay bottom was done by the hydraulic dredgers.”

Mathias said he was sympathetic to the potential economic
impact on the handful of watermen still engaged in hydraulic dredging, but
cited the greater good at the expense of a few. Mathias said aquaculture is
thriving in the coastal bays already and cited a successful operation at Public
Landing as evidence.

“This will allow private industry to move forward with
other alternatives such as aquaculture,” he said. “This isn’t about putting
people out of business. This is about transitioning people for the future and
looking for a better way to do things.”

Stoltzfus said he understood the recreational fishermen’s
concerns about the health of bays and that his opposition to the bill was more
about finding a balance on the issue.

“I’m
an avid saltwater fisherman myself and a certainly want to protect the rights
of fishermen,” he said. “I always have and I always will.” 

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