Fisheries Task Force Seeks Stronger Protection Laws

OCEAN CITY – Charged with developing new strategies to better manage Maryland’s valuable fishery resources, the state’s Task Force on Fisheries Management last week released its 2008 legislative report offering over 30 specific recommendations on habitat preservation and restoration across the state including the waters around Worcester County.

Gov. Martin O’Malley last November established the 17-member task force comprised of scientists, recreational anglers, watermen, charter boat captains and conservationists. Last winter, the group was formally established with the General Assembly’s passage of the Fisheries Management Reform Act and spent much of the last year reviewing data and examining the status of Maryland’s waterways including the Chesapeake and coastal bays.

While the news was not entirely bad, the task force did make some grim determinations about distressed fish stocks, declining habitats and the erosion of the resources. In its report, the task force said the state’s citizens should not settle for the current conditions and urged them to hold their representative’s feet to the fire in order to affect change.

“The people of Maryland should not be content to preside over the management of a stressed and declining stock of aquatic resources due to declines in water quality, loss of habitat and a deterioration of the overall health of our streams, ponds, the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries and our coastal waters,” the report concludes.

In its report, the fisheries task force made 30 specific recommendations on habitat preservation and restoration, fisheries stock monitoring and assessment, date management, legal issues and enforcement. In the upcoming General Assembly session, the state’s Department of Natural Resources is expected to ask for legislation to implement some of the task force’s recommendations.

However, defining the problems is often easier than getting legislation approved to correct them, and the task force said it would likely require a concerted effort by all levels of government. For example, Worcester County is generally ahead of the curve compared to its neighbors in the state when it comes to resource conservation, but many local governments will have to up the ante if real change is to be affected.

“The effort is going to require a new political will in local subdivisions, which have such enormous responsibility for land use management decisions in our state,” the report reads. “But if the will does not exist at the local level, the state must take actions to protect its natural resources.”

Of course, conservation is at the heart of the task force’s efforts, but fishing is big business in Maryland. According to the task force report, the commercial, charter boat and recreational fishing industries include over 700,000 participants each year, providing well in excess of $1 billion in annual economic impact for the state of Maryland. It is estimated that the fishing industry provides more than 15,000 jobs and over $30 million in sales and fuel taxes as well as millions more in state income taxes.

Preserving fisheries, and the millions of dollars fishing injects into the state’s economy, is a monumental task, considering how far the resources have declined in some cases, according to the task force report released last week.

“Almost every meeting of this task force brought new stories of habitat loss and water quality deterioration,” the report reads. “We have to do better. Much has been done to identify the causes of pollution and degradation to Maryland waters, and the time has come to launch redoubled efforts toward restoration commensurate with the values which are at risk for loss.”

With water resources and fish habitat declining almost daily, the time to act is now. Much of the state’s effort has been directed at preserving specific species in the past, but the task force is recommending taking a holistic approach in its effort to attack the source of the problems.

“We must act in concert with a greater sense of urgency than we marshaled in the past,” the report reads. “Before asking how to better manage the crabs, oysters, rockfish, black bass, brook trout and other prized fish and seafood resources of our state, we must ask ourselves what we are willing to do to provide the clean water and healthy habitat needed to sustain those populations.”

Fisheries Task Force chairman Thomas B. Lewis agreed with his group’s assessment of the situation and called for stronger legislation to protect and preserve the resources.

“Enforcing fishing laws and regulations, and protecting and restoring habitat are critical issues facing fisheries conservation in Maryland,” he said. “Without quality habitat, other efforts to improve fisheries management and protection will be of limited value.”

O’Malley praised the comprehensive work of the task force and vowed to help usher some of its recommendations through the legislature in the upcoming session.

“Maryland’s diverse fishery resources are irreplaceable, often serving as the center of our local economies, culture and quality of life,” he said. “We appreciate the many hours volunteered by the task force members to work with our fishery managers to improve the way we manage and protect resources across the state.”