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Great Lakes Article:

Kids lobby legislature for Ohio fish
By Leo Shane III
The Telegraph-Forum

COLUMBUS -- For 15 years Anna Mae Saum and her students have been fishing for support to make the smallmouth bass Ohio's state fish.

Last week they finally got a bite.

Tacking it on to an unrelated bill, House lawmakers approved an amendment celebrating the bass as Ohio's aquatic symbol, promoting it over two other hopefuls: the walleye and yellow perch.

"It started out in my civics class... when one boy asked why we don't have a state fish," said Saum, principal of Holy Rosary School in Auglaize County. "This shows that if youth have support from people they can do anything. I'm just so excited about this."

The Senate and governor still must approve the fish, but the House decision is the first major step for the smallmouth backers' lengthy campaign.

Although the state fish designation is wholly symbolic -- no programs or preservation efforts will accompany the title -- the debate over which fish to laud has been surprisingly contentious over the years.

Rep. Tony Core, R-Rushylvania, the top legislative bass supporter, had to fend off an attempt to switch the designation from the bass to the yellow perch.

That debate drew giggles from other representatives, which in turn drew a mild rebuke from House Minority Leader Rep. Chris Redfern, D-Catawba Island.

Redfern, who has pushed to make the walleye Ohio's official fish, said he was disappointed that failed to catch on. He did introduce an amendment creating a "Lake Erie -- Walleye Capital" license plate, the proceeds from which will benefit the Ohio State University Sea Grant program, including the Stone Lab on South Bass Island.

"It appeared the smallmouth had the votes," he said. "What I tried to do was mitigate the damage."

Thomas Brown, mayor of Port Clinton and a supporter of the walleye effort, said his goal has been to keep the walleye's importance to northern Ohio tourism at the forefront of lawmakers minds.

"As long as we've gotten our promotional opportunity, I'm OK with this," he said. "There is room in this big pond for all of us. I don't want to see a war between fish."

Doug Clifford, a special education teacher at Crooksville Middle School in Perry County, brought several students to testify in defense of the bass before a House committee five years ago. He said the debate and process was more important to those youngsters than the designation itself.

"My kids had a chance to get involved," he said. "They spoke to the speaker of the House. They were interviewed by committee members. They had their hands in the political process.

"I can't wait to go see the kids and tell them where it has gone."

Mike Utt, president of the Ohio Smallmouth Alliance, praised students from both schools as the main reason why the bass has swum this far in the legislative process. He thinks the smallmouth can aspire to be more than just a trivial symbol.

"It's native to every county in Ohio," he said. "It was here when the glaciers were here. It's known as a great sports fish, a fighter. And it only lives in clean water.

"What better message could we send to children worried about the environment than 'If you help us take care of our waters, you'll see our state fish'?"

Core said the timing of the proposal came as a surprise even to him. Just hours before the vote, House Speaker Larry Householder told him a bill creating zoo license plates would be an appropriate vehicle for the significant but lighthearted issue.

Householder declined to put the fish bill up for a vote last session, as lawmakers dealt with difficult budgeting decisions.

Utt said now he'll begin lobbying the Senate to keep the bill moving. Ohio is one of only six states not to have a state fish.

Sen. Larry Mumper, R-Marion, said he is mainly a perch and walleye fisherman, but would be happy to carry the House bill if his colleagues express an interest.

"Sport fishing has become a big industry in this state, and this reiterates that," he said.

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