FISHING CREEK -- The low gray clouds that spit occasional showers, and stiff southerlies that blew pennants out straight and pushed whitecaps up the Chesapeake Bay into the broad Honga River set the mood late last week for the 600 souls who live on Hooper Island.
The residents of this island in southern Dorchester County, most of whom make their livings on the water, are angry and frustrated with a Maryland Natural Resources Police they say has targeted them unfairly for enforcement of fishing regulations.
Last week, officers began serving 87 criminal summonses on watermen, some of their wives and two seafood dealers, charging them with illegally taking 250,000 pounds of striped bass during the 2000 season. At least one officer was catching up with stragglers Friday, and watermen stood talking in small groups, some looking ruefully at their charging documents.
Only a few would talk with strangers, and fewer still would give their names. "Too many families and friends involved," explained a white-haired woman who works in the kitchen at the Salty Dog restaurant and said her son had been charged. "Nobody knows where they stand."
But many clustered in knots around those who would speak, nodding in agreement to complaints about the Department of Natural Resources and its police force.
"The DNR has gotten so damn big, they're trying to make up half this [stuff] just to say they're needed," said Larry Powley, who is charged with 73 counts of violations, including conspiring to falsify public documents and harvesting more than his daily allotment of striped bass, also known as rockfish.
Col. John Rhodes, police superintendent, bristled at the criticism.
"That would be a serious allegation," he said. "But we didn't trump up these charges. These are bona fide violations of the law. With what we've been through with rockfish, and what we're going through with crabs, I don't have time for my people to go create a crisis."
Fearing that rockfish were faced with extinction, state officials imposed a moratorium on taking them in 1985. The moratorium was lifted in 1990, and the rockfish harvest has been strictly regulated since.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening recently imposed new regulations on crabbing to stem what scientists say could be a crash in the bay's blue crab population.
The watermen in the tiny communities of small frame houses stretched along this strand of land that meanders through marshes between the river and the bay chafe at the regulations. They contend that, sooner or later, the enforcement will put them all out of business.
"It's bad enough you gotta fight the weather and the elements, but now the law," Powley said.
They argue they were only trying to help each other by sharing catches and profits, and that their names may have shown up in financial records at Terrapin Fish Co. and Tideland Seafood, the packing houses police say were involved, but that doesn't mean they did anything wrong.
"I paid a man for oilskins and my name was in his records, so I got charged. Over oilskins," said a waterman who was pushing his boat away from a county dock and didn't give his name.
Others say that if they catch more than their limit they give fish to a fellow waterman who hasn't reached his limit. That practice is illegal, police say.
"If the limit is three fish and you catch four, and I only have two fish and you give me one, you're in violation of the law for catching four fish and I'm in violation for taking that fish," says Capt. Michael Sewell, whose special operations squad conducted the yearlong investigation that led to the charges.
Residents who don't work the water vouch for their neighbors as hard-working folks always ready to lend a hand.
"If we have a water rescue, all I have to do is go to the dock and give somebody the radio and next thing you know, half the boats in the marina are on their way," said Steve Lewis, vice president of the Hooper Island Fire Company, who runs a hardware store on the island.
In an effort to manage the rockfish stock, commercial watermen are allotted annual quotas, divided among three different gear types -- pound nets, gill nets and hook-and-line fishing. DNR sets seasons for each gear type and can adjust them according to the size of the harvest. Individual watermen, whose allocations are based on their gear types, must have their catch weighed and counted at state-licensed stations within three hours of returning to the dock.
In this case, the watermen are accused of catching rockfish with pound nets, then registering their catch on other watermen's hook-and-line allocations, saving their own allocations. They also are accused of failing to check their catch at a state-licensed station.
Harvest quotas were not exceeded, but police say the practice harmed those who followed the rules because hook-and-line allocations were filled quickly.
"The great majority of the watermen -- 95 percent of them -- are acting within the law," Rhodes said. "But there are others who make them look bad. The law-abiding watermen are being hurt by those who don't want to follow the rules."