State Natural Resources police have charged 87 watermen, most of them from Dorchester County, with illegally taking 250,000 pounds of striped bass during the 2000 fishing season.
It was the largest striped-bass enforcement action in Maryland since officials imposed a moratorium on taking the fish in 1985. The moratorium was lifted in 1990.
Among other charges, the watermen were accused of taking the fish without the proper licenses, falsifying or conspiring to falsify public documents, and harvesting or conspiring to harvest more than their daily allocation of striped bass, also known as rockfish. The falsification charges carry sentences of up to three years in jail and fines of up to $1,000.
Officials began serving the watermen and two seafood dealers with criminal summonses yesterday after an investigation that began in late June last year.
Acting on a tip, police put Terrapin Fish Co. on Hooper Island and Tideland Seafood Inc. across the Honga River in Wingate, as well as several watermen, under surveillance for most of the summer. Police served search warrants on the businesses, boats and homes in the area between Cambridge and the Chesapeake Bay in November.
Those searches provided a paper trail that led to yesterday's charges, said Capt. Michael E. Sewell, head of special operations.
"The longer we checked from one establishment to the next, the more people we got, until we got the 87 people we have today," he said.
Rockfish, once threatened with extinction, are strictly regulated under state and federal law.
Commercial watermen in Maryland are allocated a quota of about 2.3 million pounds a year divided among three different gear types - pound nets, gill nets and hook-and-line fishing. The Department of Natural Resources sets seasons for each gear type and can adjust them, depending on the size of the harvest.
Individual watermen register their gear types when they obtain their allocations, which are transferable. Watermen are required to have their catches counted and weighed at state-licensed stations within three hours of returning to the dock.
The watermen are accused of catching rockfish with pound nets and then using other watermen's hook-and-line allocations without properly transferring the quotas when they registered their take. They also are accused of checking and weighing their catches at Terrapin Seafood, which does not have a state license. Officials say that Tideland, which has a license, reported to the state that it had done the work.
The alleged actions did not result in exceeding the quotas, but it hurt "honest watermen who were following the rules," Sewell said.
Because pound-net fishing is vastly more efficient than hook-and-line fishing, the hook-and-line quota was reached more quickly, shortening the season for other fishermen, he said.
The watermen and seafood dealers complained about the DNR's actions. "The watermen down here all help each other, and they're being persecuted because of that," said Nancy Powley of Fishing Creek, who was charged with failing to have her striped bass weighed at a DNR-licensed station.
Different watermen were doing "different things," said William R. Fitzhugh Jr., owner of Terrapin Fish Co. "But they were all law-abiding things."
Fitzhugh is charged with 40 counts of falsifying public documents and 32 counts of conspiring to falsify public documents. His father, William R. Fitzhugh Sr., owner of Tideland, is charged with 72 counts of falsifying public documents.