By Cheryl Costello
For the third time, legislators in Annapolis are considering a proposal to allow watermen to fish for bait fish using haul seine nets in Anne Arundel County. Several counties already have haul seine commercial fisheries, but concerns about bycatch has led to this fishing method being banned for decades within the county’s waters.
After the bill floundered last session, its sponsors have made changes to exclude certain contentious waterways. But some environmental-minded anglers say that’s not enough. Kayak angler Brennan Thompson shared videos on Instagram of haul seine net fishing elsewhere in Maryland. He doesn’t want to give the exact location to protect the fishery, but he says it happened a few weeks ago in a Maryland Bay tributary.
“This guy has been in and out of here for the last three days, netting everything,” Thompson narrates a video, showing the net with a number of larger, non-targeted fish trapped in it. He says the haul seine net had several rockfish in it, and they were bleeding trying to escape the net. “There’s a lot of huge bass in it,” he says, zooming in.
Commercial fishermen use the nets to capture smaller, lower food chain fish to sell or use as their own bait, but the wide net sweeps up everything in its path. Bycatch is just one reason opponents are fighting legislation on haul seine nets.
“The way it’s being done is not managing the resource,” says Larry Jennings, a volunteer with Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland. “It’s just ‘go do it whenever you want.’ To properly do it, you would want to know how many fish are in the river.”
Jennings testified virtually in front of the Anne Arundel County delegation on House Bill 1218, which would allow the nets in parts of Anne Arundel County, an area where using haul seine nets has long been banned.
Sponsor Del. Seth Howard (R-30B) says the motivation behind the legislation, “comes from a disparity perspective that I’ve learned about,” referring to watermen who must travel to other parts of the state to buy bait, rather than fish for it right in their own backyard.
Longtime waterman Robert Howes wants to use the nets close to his home on the West River in Shady Side to catch his own bait—and to sell some.
“We are paying the same prices as a guy in Calvert County or on the Eastern Shore. Our license fees are paid the same as they are and we don’t have this [haul seine] fishery in our county. It does hurt us financially because we have to rely on other bait sources. Last year we were driving to Baltimore to get shrimp heads because … we didn’t have a bait supplier right here. We drove to St. Mary’s sometimes to get bait. We drove to Kent Island to get bait. So we were leaving our county when we have the fish here.”
Howes and his wife, Julia, who own Howes Crabs & Seafood, testified in favor of the bill. “The watermen are not interested in depleting the Bay’s resources,” she says. “We are working together with lawmakers and environmental organizations to keep the Bay sustainable.”
Some areas in the proposed legislation last year resulted in a big fight to be excluded from this year’s version. “So just to clarify, there will be no use of haul seine whatsoever in the water, creeks, tributaries or inlets of the Severn River, Lake Ogleton, Whitehall Bay. Also based on these conversations and concerns I will propose an amendment which I am currently drafting to exclude the Magothy River,” Howard says.
In a statement, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman says they have not taken a position on the haul seine bill this year. She adds, “There is not a legal bycatch of oversized striped bass. In the haul seine fishery there isn’t a time limit for emptying the net.”
The delegation is expected to vote this Friday to determine if it will move on to a committee hearing.