A Dorchester County judge has denied a watermen's group's bid to reopen Maryland's menhaden fishery, but ordered a trial scheduled next spring on how the Department of Natural Resources has imposed catch limits on the prized bait fish.
Circuit Court Judge David B. Mitchell refused in a hearing in Cambridge Wednesday to issue either a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction against DNR's enforcement of regulations under which it curtailed the catch of menhaden at the end of June.
Burl Lewis and Larry "Boo" Powley, members of the Harvesters Land and Sea Coalition, had filed suit in October contending that DNR illegally reduced their allowable menhaden catch by prematurely declaring that Maryland fishermen had caught the state's quota of the fish.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission had ordered a 20 percent reduction in coastwide harvest this year of menhaden. The vast majority are caught by a Virginia-based fleet owned by Omega Protein, which processes them into animal feed and fish oil. The rest are caught for use as bait to catch crabs and other fish.
Maryland's reduced quota was 5.12 million pounds. DNR declared the state's menhaden fishery closed on June 29 after projecting, based on prior year's harvest reports, that the commercial catch had reached that ceiling. The watermen argue the overall catch at that time was nowhere near the limit.
Under DNR "bycatch" rules, watermen fishing stationary pound nets have been allowed to continue harvesting 6,000 pounds of menhaden a day (or up to 12,000 pounds if there are two license holders on the boat). But the watermen contend the bycatch limits unreasonably restrict their ability to earn a livelihood.
Judge Mitchell ruled that the watermen had not proven the necessity of immediate relief from the regulations, according to online court records.
Rob Newberry, spokesman for the watermen's group, noted that it had taken three weeks to get a hearing on the watermen's suit. The normal time for catching menhaden is drawing to a close, he said, so the value of reopening the fishery now is not as great. He said the group welcomes the opportunity to present its case at trial next spring and make DNR explain its handling of the fishery.
Lynn Fegley, DNR's deputy fisheries director, said watermen have continued to haul in menhaden under the bycatch limits, raising the total harvest for this year to 6.1 million pounds as of Oct. 27. But the state will not be penalized by the Atlantic States commission for exceeding its quota, she said, because DNR officially closed the fishery before the ceiling was hit.