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Ohio bill proposes to restrict commercial trapnet fishermen

Another attempt is under way in the Statehouse to more strictly regulate Lake Erie commercial trapnet fishermen, though it appears unlikely a newly proposed bill will grind through the legislative mill unscathed.

State Sen. Timothy Grendell [R., Chesterland] has introduced Senate Bill 77, which he says is aimed at protecting sport fishing in the lake by increasing the ability of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to enforce limits on commercial trapnetting operations.

Trapnets are the gear of choice when targeting highly prized yellow perch. The Grendell bill picks up where state legislators left off at the end of the session in December, when another plan to restrict netting could not be worked out and passed.

It would require commercial trapnetters to use a vessel and catch-monitoring device, and would revoke a license of any fisherman who is convicted of a felony related to commercial fishing or who commits multiple fishing violations. It also would treble the cost of an annual license from $800 to $2,400, the additional fees going to support commercial fishing law enforcement by the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

S.B. 77 also would increase the suspension period for violating commercial fishing rules, require state approval of the transfer of a commercial fishing operator's license, and provide additional funds to ODNR enforcement efforts to assure compliance with commercial fishing limits.

A hearing on sponsor testimony, the first step in the legislative process, is slated for 11 a.m. Wednesday before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee at the Statehouse in Columbus.

"Sport fishing is a multimillion dollar business in Ohio," stated Grendell. "It is important to take these steps to protect sport fishermen, while allowing law-abiding commercial fishermen to continue to run their business. The bill does just that."

Well, maybe.

But the ODNR has yet to take a position on the bill and the Ohio Fish Producers Association, which represents trapnetters, wants some compromises. But first, some background:

The issue of stronger net regulation arose last summer in the wake of a felony racketeering scandal in Cuyahoga County involving systematic underreporting of at least 40 tons or more of 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.

The original buyout bills in the House and Senate would have provided $4 million 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 December that neither bill would sail as written.

For one thing they did not want to be seen "buying out" convicted felons, which some of the current license-holders are. That presumably would have sent the public a message that you can get paid off not to break the law again.

"Currently we don't have a position on it," said Cristi Wilt, the new communications chief at the ODNR. The director [Sean Logan] is working with the Division of Wildlife right now on the issue. We're exploring some of the possible options to accomplish the goals of those involved."

Kenny King, a trapnetter and president of the Ohio Fish Producers, said that he has some reservations about the Grendell proposal.

"It's going to take a lot of work," King suggested, referring to modifications that would suit the association. For one thing, he explained, "the penalities are too stiff. Something as simple as a label falling off a [fish] box could mean a license suspension for 30 days. Three in 10 years and you lose your license."

Stiffer penalities for violations, King acknowledged, are good in theory as long as they are not too strict. He does not want to see a repeat of the felony racketeering operations that caused the uproar last summer.

He also said that the "black box" that the state wants installed on each fishing boat to keep track of it at all times would cost $4,000 to $5,000 each. "I have four boats, that's $20,000. Like Larry Davis [another license holder] said, where are you going to hide a 40-foot boat? We fish only in daylight hours and report our longitude and latitude."

On the other hand King likes the idea of electronic filing of catches. It would eliminate paperwork and provide up-to-date daily tallies instead of paper reports filed every two weeks.

"We want to work with them and get this worked out."

The Michigan Natural Resources Commission has unanimously opposed a pair of proposals that would have limited deer hunters to one buck, either in the Upper Peninsula only or statewide.

State deer managers said a strong majority of hunters polled were not interested in changing the two-buck rule that is in place. For 2007 the combination license contains two tags, one for harvesting any antlered deer and one for a second deer having at least four antler points on one side.

Doug Reeves, assistant chief of wildlife for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said only 4.2 percent of hunters overall take a second buck, and that breaks down to only 2 percent of Upper Peninsula hunters, 2 percent of northern lower peninsula hunters, and 5 percent of southern lower hunters.

The second buck tally is about 25,000 out of a herd estimated at 1.3 million deer. Thus, the second buck option is seen as giving hunters a lot of additional opportunity without significantly affecting deer numbers. By comparison the state's annual roadkill is about 60,000 deer.

But in 2005, the latest season for which total harvests are available, Michigan hunters took 218,000 antlered bucks, or 52 percent of the total bag of 417,000 deer.

By comparison, Ohio hunters in 2006 took 95,000 bucks, or 40 percent of a 237,000-deer harvest, and Pennsylvania hunters took 135,000 bucks, or 37 percent of a 361,000-deer harvest.

Both states have a one-buck-per-season rule.

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