Sounds simple, doesn’t it? A right to have fun? That’s something we all take for granted. Well, you shouldn’t according to some lawmakers in Annapolis. This week, a bill was introduced in the House Environmental Matters Committee that seeks to define one simple thing – that the public has a right to use and enjoy the water. Who wouldn’t vote for that? Your delegate probably won’t. In fact, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) testified against it. Seem odd?

Here’s how it breaks out. Some wealthy waterfront property owners got involved in a not-in-my-backyard user conflict over proposed oyster floats in the Chincoteague Bay. The case went to a hearing and the attorney general issued a half-witted ruling that said, “on public waters, the state does not recognize the right to recreate.”  Seeking to appeal, the property owners got a few state delegates to help them out and a bill was introduced to make sure the right for recreation is defined in the law. Read more about it here.  I don’t think the delegates – all from red districts – intended to do anything more than help out a few rich constituants, but they opened an interesting issue and things got dicey.

Forgive them, they know not what they do. – Luke 23:34.  Or stated another way, be careful what you ask for because you just might get it!

In 1948, the United Nations issued a document called, A Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  In it, they recognized recreation and leisure as one of the most basic of human rights. Frankly, it’s something we’ve always taken for granted in America. Since this is a fishing website, I know most of my readers place great importance on the time they get to relax out on the water. We love to fish, but the right to aquatic recreation goes a lot farther than that. It applies to thousands of outdoor activities such as sailing, swimming, kayaking, motor-boating, tubing, jet skiing, surfing, beach-combing, bird-watching, the list is a mile long.

But in Maryland, the law doesn’t say you have the right to do any of those things. The state Department of Natural Resources is worried that if a right to recreation on public waters is written in to law, it would have to show preference to the recreational public over commercial activity. Yes, that includes commercial fishing and aquaculture. Of course there are processes in place to work out user conflicts, but apparently the higher concept like a basic human right isn’t being considered by our leaders in The Free State. In a letter to advisory commissioners, a Maryland DNR representative wrote: “If passed this legislation will be problematic for any other users of the Maryland waters. Recreational users would prevail in any commercial gear conflict….”

Well, shouldn’t they? And not only over commercial gear, but shouldn’t the common recreational interests of the people be the first priority in every management decision?

Remember, we aren’t just talking fishing here, we’re talking about everything we do outdoors. We’re talking about activities that drive the basic human desire for conservation, the enjoyment of the very resources that DNR is charged by us to protect. Even though it spawned the issue, it’s impossible to reduce a basic human right for recreation down to a conflict between property owners or a recs vs comms fishing spat. As I’ve stated before, I’m a fan and supporter of responsible commercial fishermen. There is a philosophical question here that must be answered.

The inquiry into who has a right to recreate gets to the core of the American conservation ethic. The people of Maryland own the Chesapeake Bay and the coastal waters of our state. We all own it, not just a few. We also own the rivers and streams that meander through our countryside. Our uniquely beautiful waters define our state and our culture. Our waters are considered to be in a public trust and therefore fall into a centuries-old concept called The Public Trust Doctrine.  It just means the people, all the people, have a right to the waters. Taken further, it also means that all fish and wildlife are to be held in trust by the government for the benefit of present and future generations.

When a lot of people own something there are sure to be disagreements over the best way to manage it, so what should be top-priority?  The obvious answer is activities that benefit everyone. That means RECREATION. Everyone recreates. Without recreation, there would be no conservation because no one would care. If no one in Maryland ever skipped a stone across a lazy stream, or kayaked through a pristine salt-marsh, or watched a sunrise over a wind-sculpted dune, or dropped a jig on a school of frenzied rockfish, then no one in Maryland would want to protect that activity for future generations.

There is nothing more important in the management of our natural resources than preserving them for the recreational enjoyment of future generations, yet I don’t expect this bill to pass or even make it out of committee. Your lawmakers probably won’t see the big picture and recognize your right to recreate and your Department of Natural Resources actively opposes it. That’s unfortunate, because the conservation ethic depends on recreation, and the only way to manage our resources for all the people of Maryland is to put recreation first.

Posted Thursday, March 7th, 2013 at 1:07 pm
Filed Under Category: Fishing Reports
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Responses to “The Right To Recreate – Editorial”

  1. James O. says:

    Excellent article. I am forwarding it to my representative.

  2. Daniel Kimbro says:

    TN went through a similar deal with TVA onFt. Loudon lake a few years back. I don’t remember if it was ever resolved, but it had to do with land purchases and dock building, and I think the “right to use” topic came up, and TVA was heavily involved…I’ll look it up. Either way, it’s interesting to see DNR involved in this case. I thought the MD DNR was more interested in NOT enforcing; catch and release limits, gill netters, poaching…it just throws gas on the “DNR is in the back pocket of commercial interest” flames. I know, spoken like a true out of town visitor on his high horse, but I mean, COME ON. -DK

  3. Randy Steiger says:

    It seemed crazy that DNR even got involved in this. They tipped their hand for sure.

  4. Shawn says:

    I agree that DNR’s involvment is surprising. I’m usually not publicly critical of DNR because I’ve found them to be reasonably open to recreational concerns, but this one is baffling, especially considering the sloppy way it is being handled. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem like much since most of us already feel like we have a right to recreate, but this has certainly opened my eyes to some bias.

  5. Billy Jinks says:

    Aha!! Now I get it, these guys are republicans and they opened an issue that could negative impact industry and slow growth, I bet they wish they could take it back.

  6. Shawn says:

    Yuk yuk. Good point, Billy. I don’t really think this situation is red or blue, or that there would be much negative impact. But now that you mention it, slow growth on the Bay sounds like a good thing to me and it is kind of funny to see those guys on this side of a public trust issue. I wonder if the Democrats on the Environmental Matters Committee will pick up on that?

  7. Steven in Annapolis says:

    Thanks for calling our attention to this, Shawn.

  8. Eastport Sam says:

    I think I get what you are saying now. I also appreciate that you say you are a fan of responsible commercial fishermen. The issue seems complicated to me but I at least I understand your position.

  9. Shawn says:

    Sam, I fished commercially for a number of years. This isn’t a comms vs recs issue. It’s a Humanities 101 principle that states what’s good for society as a whole is ultimately good for subsets of society, and that includes commercial watermen. How many boaters spend a day on the water then finish with an evening at a seafood restaurant? Let’s start dinner with farm-raised Chesapeake oysters, please. I think we have to get out of the trenches here and step back a little. It all comes together when we protect the conservation ethic.

  10. florida gator says:

    You are talking way over everyones head here. It was just a user conflict that got blown out of proportion. As for DNR being prejudice against recreation, you’re just finding that out?

  11. RiverCat09 says:

    I sent emails plus snail mails to my reps. Snail mails get more attention.


  12. Chris says:

    Very nice piece Shawn. However, I think that the AG’s statement was probably correct though regrettably phrased. The fact is, so far as I’m aware, Maryland doesn’t formally recognize the right to recreate or, more specifically (and in the way that several states have done) recognize the rights to hunt and fish. And, I suspect that the proper way to make a change to this would be amendment to the state constitution. The vehicle being used for the change in this instance- a regulation relating to the DNR- seemed a curious choice of a way to recognize or confer a right. Also, I think there’s some issue with the use of the word “recreation.” What is it exactly? Webster defines it as “refreshment of strength and spirits after work” or “a means of refreshment or diversion.” I suspect that, under that definition, one man’s recreation might be another’s nightmare. Absent clear delineation of what’s covered, couldn’t it convey the right to do just about anything? I think the underlying concept, particularly as you’ve laid it out here, is well-intentioned, but the current legislative effort may have been under-thought.

    • Shawn says:

      Thanks for the well-informed perspective, Chris. I think even the sponsoring delegate would agree that it could have been handled differently. One of the things that most attracted me to the issue is the potential to expose bias in our current processes. DNR played right along and so frankly did the oyster aquaculture community (of whom I am a big fan). I agree with you regarding the need for definition and would welcome the recognition of a right to hunt and fish in Maryland.

      • Chris says:

        DNR’s reaction to the bill really was troublingly one-sided and opaque. I guess part of the issue is that agencies and legislative bodies are reacting to interest groups that are so fractured and contentious right now. Your comments regarding responsible commercial fishing and aquaculture are well-taken and I think demonstrate the right frame of mind in trying to make progress on these issues when it comes time to approach the folks in Annapolis. I agree that seeking recognition of the right to fish and hunt in a combined effort could be effective, particularly if it means joining the CCA’s of the world with the power of the Ducks Unlimited lobby and the like.

  13. Amanda says:

    Shawn, you have really spelled this out well! Thank you so much for offering your opinion. I believe it’s one that can really bring us together as Marylanders.

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