Early this morning, they threw down their fishing nets and slogged into their state capital, these 80 Chesapeake Bay watermen in their rubber boots, flannel shirts and windbreakers. Their mission: to tell lawmakers a thing or two about the bureaucrats and biologists who try to regulate Maryland's fishing industry.
And by the time they headed home in the early afternoon, they appeared to have gotten what they wanted. Almost every member of the powerful Senate Economic Affairs Committee was vowing to deep-six a well meaning -- but to the watermen, ruinous -- Department of Natural Resources bill protecting the dwindling population of young, striped bass, Maryland's state fish, the popular rockfish.
"Here we got 200 men who are on the water every day of the week, and the DNR has three college kids -- biologists they call 'em -- telling us what to do," snarled "Cap'n" Harry R. Jobes of Aberdeen, who has made his living on the Chesapeake for more than 30 years.
"That department is gonna crucify the watermen with these regulations," Jobes raged on, as he lined up with dozens of fellow fishermen outside the normally staid committee room, waiting his turn to testify. "After a while you're gonna have to be a Philadelphia laywer to figure out the fishing laws in the state."
At the heart of the commotion was a bill proposing to raise the minimum legal size of rockfish caught and sold in Maryland from 12 inches to 14 inches. To the DNR's leaders, this seemed reasonable enough. Their studies showed an alarming drop in the population of young rockfish, and the best way to stop the decline, they decided, would be to keep fishermen from catching the fish until it reaches the spawning stage -- or, according to the department, until it reaches 14 inches in length.
But while two inches seemed like a faily harmless distinction to the bureaucrats, almost all the watermen who came here today from along the Maryland shoreline said their livelihood was at stake.
As such, the senators were treated to an aquatic variation of the classic confrontation between the bureaucrcy and "the people."
On one side was William (Pete) Jensen, the soft-spoken DNR official who argued his department's case with statistics and policy statements showing deep concern about the future of the striped state fish.
On the other were the straight-talking, ruddy-faced fishermen, who came to the podium to say that at least half their catch falls between 12 and 14 inches, so that the 14-inch minimum would put him out of business.
Then came the wholesalers, who warned that restaurants would start buying fish from Virginia and other states that retained the 12-inch limit since a normal rockfish serving is 12 inches.
Furthermore, argued the watermen's chief lobbyist, Larry Symns, even the department admits that rockfish are disappearing mainly because of industrial pollution in the Chesapeake, not because of the fishermen.
"We want the state to go after the industries, not the fisherman," said Symns, who says he speaks for the 9,000 commercial fisherman in Maryland. "We're the easiest people to attack, but they're going after the wrong people."
The men who circled the committee room today provided a stark contrast to the well-dressed lobbyists who normally represent Maryland businesses before the senators. One of them, Al Woodfield, a seafood wholesaler from the Eastern Shore town of Rock Hall, brought with him a beer cooler filled with striped bass of varying lengths so that the lawmakers could see the fish for themselves.
There was, however, some dissention i the ranks. John Page Williams, a licensed boat captain speaking for the conservationist Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said his 8,500-member group reluctantly supports the bill, fearing that rockfish are in danger and must be protected so they will remain available to commercial and sport fishermen.
Committee chairman Sen. Harry McGuirk (D-Baltimore) said he expects the bill will be referred to a summer study session. In any case, it has virtually no chance of reaching the floor in this session, he and others said.