Virginia and Maryland watermen traditionally have rebelled against government controls on their fishing rights, but yesterday they asked Congress to impose a one-year moratorium on rockfish, or striped bass, along the entire East Coast, saying the law passed by Congress last year has failed.
"Such a moratorium will speed the return of the rock, and will, in the long run, help watermen from all over the East Coast, not just the Chesapeake Bay," said Wayne Balderson, a third-generation Virginia waterman and president of the Westmoreland County Waterman's Association.
Balderson testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee on pollution, along with Marvel Haynie, president of the Virginia Waterman's Association, and Robert Brown, president of the St. Mary's County Waterman's Association. Both groups also support an East Coast moratorium.
The hearings were held to review the effectiveness of the law Congress passed last year seeking to stop the dangerous depletion of rockfish, the prized game and table fish that provides thousands of jobs along the Atlantic Coast.
The law directed states to reduce their catches by 55 percent. The federal government was to impose a one-year ban on those states that failed to meet the goal by last month. Several members of Congress from Maryland and Virginia, including Republican Rep. Herbert H. Bateman of Virginia's Tidewater area and Democratic Rep. Roy Dyson of Maryland's Eastern Shore, opposed the federal moratorium provision last year.
They argued that it could deprive watermen of their livelihood.
Federal officials testified yesterday that all 12 states met the requirements and no moratorium has been imposed on any state.
Maryland and Delaware imposed their own ban on rockfish. Virginia, although it resisted calls for a ban on rockfish fishing, has tightened restrictions.
The Chesapeake Bay watermen testified yesterday that the patchwork of state regulations has been burdensome and ineffective and that a one-year ban all along the East Coast would be the best solution.
Balderson said that even when he or other Virginia fishermen have rockfish, they have trouble selling it because seafood companies fear they may be buying rockfish that has been illegally caught.
"This is not surprising because there are more than 140 different state restrictions on the catching and possession of rockfish. Buyers can be prosecuted for possessing illegally caught fish," said Balderson. "Because the regulations are so complicated, seafood companies are refusing to buy any rockfish at all."
Balderson said the inequities in the law also hurt the watermen. Most states have minimum-size limits of 24 inches. But New York has an 18-inch minimum in tidal waters and a 24-inch minimum in marine waters.
"This means that New York watermen, depending on where they catch the rock, can fish and market their catch, while Rhode Island watermen cannot," said Balderson. He added that in New York, rockfish may not be sold between Jan. 1 and May 7, while in Rhode Island it can be sold all year.
In addition, Maryland watermen are banned from taking even large rockfish, so that there are plenty of fish to spawn in the Chesapeake. But those who fish farther north can catch the same large rockfish, preventing them from returning to spawn, said Balderson.
Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), chairman of the subcommittee, said he supports a one-year moratorium, but believes states should follow the lead of Maryland and Delaware.
He said that it would be less effective for the federal government to impose such a restriction on states, because state officials would be less likely to assist in enforcing a ban.
Reagan administration officials praised Maryland and Delaware, but said they did not believe an East Coast moratorium was needed.
But they did testify that rockfish stocks remain at historic lows.
Officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said recent studies found that in two prime spawning areas, the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia's Roanoke River, the rockfish stocks are the lowest on record.
They endorsed new restrictions adopted last month by the Atlantic Coast Marine Fisheries Commission directing its 12 member states to increase minimum length rules on rockfish catches.
But Irwin Alperin, executive director of the commission, said, "I'm not sure how long it will take all the states to accomplish this, and I'm not sure that they all will."