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Published: Sunday, 12/10/2006

Bill to buy Erie's trapnet licenses hits snag

A limited buyout of Ohio's remnant Lake Erie commercial fishing industry, one which would penalize flagrant violators but permit continued fishing by compliant netters, is being proposed in the waning days of the current session of the Ohio General Assembly.

Sponsors and supporters of the proposed buyout law, House Bill 609 and its companion, Senate Bill 351, have been scurrying since last week to ready a satisfactory, amended plan and see it approved before lawmakers adjourn Dec. 22.

The original bills would have provided $4 million in general revenue funds to buy up the lake's remaining 18 trapnet licenses, using a formula based on each licensee's average catch between 2000 and 2005. But it was clear from the lawmakers' at-best muted responses during hearings in both houses in the last two weeks that neither bill would sail as written.

The proposals were introduced last summer in the wake of a felony racketeering scandal in Cuyahoga County involving systematic underreporting of 40 tons or more of highly prized yellow perch over two years by several lakefront businesses and individuals. Fourteen indictments were handed up, leading to $360,000 in fines and additional penalities.

Additional grand jury indictments are pending in Lorain County in a related case.

"I think we still have a very good chance of passing [an amended buyout bill] in this session," stated Steve Gray, chief of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. The division is charged among other duties with managing and policing both sport and commercial fishing in Lake Erie.

Gray thinks that state lawmakers will be supportive of a plan that would call to account the most serious violators while allowing honest operators to continue. He said that details on an amended bill remained fluid as of the close of business yesterday. "There is a lot of negotiation going on."

But generally, he added, a substitute plan would allow netters with good records to continue or possibly offer them a voluntary buyout based on a revised formula that is more financially attractive than initially proposed. Such a bill also may include more significant penalties "for more egregious violations," up to and including license revocation.

"We're OK with that," said Gray. "But we need to be able to trust once again in the catch reports we're getting."

Mike Budzik, a former state wildlife chief now associated with the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, a sportsmen's lobby, attended all the hearings on 609 and 351 and agreed that lawmakers seem to lack enthusiasm for a wholesale buyout, as was done almost 25 years ago with walleye gillnet fishermen.

But, he added, "we need to get the felons out of the pool." Budzik noted, however, that time is of the essence as the legislative session winds down. Otherwise, it might be next fall or even 2008 before lawmakers again tackle the issue, given that a new governor and cabinet and a new legislature will take over in January. Just the startup of a new adminstration, he noted, can take six months .

Commentary: Here is hoping that state lawmakers can come up with an acceptable plan to deal with Lake Erie commercial trapnetters. It would be a good first step.

Some sort of legal response must be made to the flagrant, arrogant sort of systematic cheating so blatantly demonstrated in the felony racketeering cases. But in the long run the policing of the commercial fishery - if its continued survival truly remains the public sentiment - needs more than a Band-Aid fix.

That is especially so given the too-often limp-wristed approach of local courts, which seemingly don't want to understand their important role in managing a resource, which is to finish the work of enforcement with real penalities to repeated violations.

The need for a real overhaul of policing of netters, even at its dwindling heritage level in Ohio waters, also is apparent given the prevailing attitudes of some of these operators. They make it clear by their misbehavior that even the specter of felony racketeering is not enough to change their scofflaw ways. Just two examples - this even after the yellow perch racketeering was widely exposed - will illustrate the point.

In one case a long-time commercial netter who should know better failed to pay off the $800 for his annual license within the alloted 90 days. He was warned, he ignored, he got a ticket. At the same time he got a ticket for failure to report his catches for the first half of June - this when failure to report was the central well-publicized issue in the racketeering scandal.

The particular fisherman, it should be stated, was not involved in that scandal. But what does such in-your-face scofflawism convey to the public about the attitudes of commercial netters?

True, this is an industry only in a loose sense; commercial trapnetters are more a collection of staunchly independent individuals doing the same kind of work that they are a unified voice or industry per se. But the bad behavior of one, like it or not, speaks for all and it appears that little ever is done in terms of effective self-policing within the ranks of the netters themselves.

As for the local muncipal court, it dismissed the failure-to-pay charge against the aforesaid netter, seemingly because he eventually paid up, if belatedly. Then the court fined him a mere $30 plus $70 in court costs for the failure to report his catch as required by regulations.

What kind of message is the court sending the fisherman? Simply that it's OK to cheat or be careless, that the only penalty will be a naughty-naughty. How is the Ohio Division of Wildlife going to achieve compliance with its fishing rules when the courts treat their hard work as less important than a schoolkid's late homework?

In another case last summer, one commercial net captain turned up at the dock with more than half his catch, about 100 pounds, illegally under the minimum keeper length of 8 1/2 inches. The rules cut the netters reasonable slack, allowing up to 10 percent "shorts." But 51 percent of his catch was short, and not just hair-splitting quarter-inch or eighth-inch short.

At least the court fined the netter $1,000 and costs. But where was he coming from, again in the wake of the racketeering case and public image? You would think netters nowadays would be on their best behavior.

Sure, commercial fishing is tough, it's a dirty back-breaking job. It is done by rugged individuals who work and live by their wits and the vagaries of nature. But they are not folk heroes. They are making money off a public resource and they live in a closed club that has a monopoly on netting.

That's right. Neither you nor I nor anyone else can simply go out and buy a trapnet boat and gear and a license and go fishing - even if we wanted to and knew how. That is because the state has limited the fishery to just the 18 remaining licenses.

Last and not least, it is well past time for the state's sport fishermen to be relieved of having to carry the general public on their backs when it comes to management of commercial fishing.

Commercial fishing benefits the general public, yet it is sportfishing license fees that pay for the management and policing of both commercial and sport fishing. Yes, netters pay for licenses. But those fees are a pittance that do not come anywhere close to covering the costs of managing and policing the netters.

If the public wants to buy Ohio-produced (instead of Canadian gill-netted) Lake Erie perch at the local supermarket, then lawmakers need to pony up the funds to pay for the benefit. The Ohio Highway Patrol has a separate commercial enforcement division to police truckers, so why can't lawmakers fund a Lake Erie commercial fishing enforcement section in the Ohio Division of Wildlife?

Assuming, that is, that they do not have the inclination to buy out the whole net fishery once and for all.



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