By MEGAN HARTLEY, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - The Maryland Senate enacted legislation Tuesday that will ban hydraulic clam dredging in the state's Atlantic coastal bays - effectively killing the clamming business in Maryland.
Just one week ago, the Senate voted against a similar bill. The about-face is credited to a Democratic caucus meeting where environment-friendly senators "chastised" other members who voted against the bill, according to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert.
But in this odd turn of events, which Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset called "ugly politics," there is much debate over whether clam dredging is actually harmful to aquatic habitats in the coastal bays.
Michael E. Slattery, assistant secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, says this issue has less to do with the environment and more to do with social conflicts.
"Many people who like to fish and enjoy boating are disturbed by the dredges because it makes a loud noise," said Slattery. "People, whether they are right or not, genuinely do believe an adverse affect is being caused even when the experts in the department are saying that that's not so."
The hydraulic dredge uses a suction tube that juts four feet into the bay bottom to vacuum sediment onto a conveyer belt where watermen pick out the clams and throw the rest back into the water.
The temporary sand plume resulting from the dredge, which many think is harmful, actually does some good, according to Slattery. It provides food for fish that follow the boat.
"You have to remember that these bays are relatively shallow. They flush frequently and sands are shifting. They are very dynamic ecosystems," said Slattery.
The House of Delegates has already passed the bill, which now goes to Gov. Martin O'Malley for signature. A spokesman for the governor said O'Malley was uncertain about whether he will sign the bill, which he characterized as a complicated issue.
Both supporters and opponents of the legislation agree that it will effectively end the practice of hydraulic dredging in Ocean City and environs. According to a legislative analysis of the bill, 22 commercial licenses were issued that allow hydraulic dredging. Between 2000 and 2006, $353,000 worth of clams was harvested.
Stoltzfus, an avid opponent of the bill, received calls from watermen in his district who he said urged him to defeat the bill. One woman said she will no longer be able to afford to send her daughter to Washington College if the bill passed.
"To say, 'Hey we're going to shut down this sector without the science,' is just unconscionable to me," said Stoltzfus.
But many other legislators disagreed with Stoltzfus, who gathered support from his colleagues for the first vote and was surprised and upset by their quick turn around.
In an interview in his office, Miller said he had a house in Ocean City for thirty years and that the hydraulic dredges he saw looked like "giant serpents." He says he can not understand why they are allowed.
"This is not a local issue. The bays belong to everybody and any issue involving them is a state-wide issue," said Miller.
The Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association is happy with the Senate's action, according to Richard Novotny, who heads the group.
"We are very excited about it being passed," said Novotny. "It's like a big rake that goes four feet into the ground and sucks up everything. You'll see a big plume behind the boat."
Novotny said this plume will travel over to the bay grasses and reduce sunlight, causing harm. The Department of Natural Resources currently does not allow waterman to dredge in areas with bay grasses.
But waterman feel the bill is unjust and will destroy the clamming business on the Eastern Shore.
"We really wanted the bill to be killed," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman's Association. "The worst part is it's not just like a job, they have equipment tied into this."
Simns said hand tongs are not a feasible replacement for the hydraulic dredge because a waterman cannot catch enough to make a profit.
In a last ditch attempt, opponents of the bill offered an amendment that would reimburse watermen for lost revenue and the value of their equipment. The funds for the amendment were to come out of the Water Quality Improvement Fund, but it was killed in a vote of 27-19.
Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Queen Anne's who introduced the amendment, said that the bill was "mean spirited," and that no matter what fund he picked it would "not have been the right fund." The Senate did accept an amendment that will extend the start date of the legislation until 2008.