Fish, game laws cry for reform

Outdoors

February 16, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

The law finally caught up with Thomas Pannebaker, but it took its sweet time getting there.

After more than a decade of breaking fish-and-game laws and getting away with a slap on the wrist, he ran out of luck last month. A district judge threw the Baltimore County man into jail for 60 days and fined him $1,500 for illegal crabbing.

Sad to say, Pannebaker isn't the only criminal out there thumbing his nose at the rest of us. He and others get away with this stuff because it seems that when it comes to protecting natural resources, the state legislature is clueless, the laws are toothless and some fishermen couldn't care less.

Time has run out to fix the system this legislative session, but new Department of Natural Resources Secretary Ron Franks says he's determined to have a bill ready for next year.

After some behind-the-scenes prodding, Franks got recreational anglers and commercial fishermen to sit around a table in Annapolis on Friday afternoon to begin the process.

"People who abuse the resources to the detriment of everyone else have to be dealt with," Franks says. "Everybody knows we have to do something."

Not everybody.

"There might be some room for reform, but there's not as big a need as they think there is. It's a perceived problem by the opposition," Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, says of the recreational interests. "They want to see all the watermen lose their licenses. They want to get rid of us."

The recreational side insists that's not the case.

"We've done our homework and we're glad to sit down with the commercial people," says Richie Gaines, a charter boat captain and member of the Maryland Sportfish Advisory Commission. "We'll do what it takes to get this done."

The problem is twofold. First is the law, 60 pages of gobbledygook that sets the table for the second hurdle: a point system that is supposed to penalize lawbreakers.

Unlike the straightforward motor vehicle point system, the statute stipulates that fishing violators accrue points only for repeat offenses committed in the same fishery on the same species within a specific time period.

So an outlaw who knows how to work the system can steal crabs from Middle River, striped bass from the bay and then move onto something else as long as he keeps an eye on the calendar.

Take the case of Pannebaker, who apparently collected Natural Resources tickets for a hobby. Court records over the decade show he particularly enjoyed crabbing in restricted areas, an offense he was convicted of eight times. But he also reveled in crabbing without a license, using illegal equipment and crabbing on days when he shouldn't have.

And Pannebaker didn't restrict his stealing to crustaceans. As a hunter, he was found guilty of exceeding the daily bag limit for waterfowl, failing to retrieve dead birds, guiding clients without a license and trespassing while hunting on two occasions during the 10 years.

A real triple threat, he also was caught six times operating a boat without lights, life jackets or registration.

While running up his amazing string of crimes against nature, Pannebaker had been careful not to cross the points threshold. But, last August, undercover officers caught him around midnight near Essex Skypark and cited him for 10 violations, including crabbing with illegal pots and wearing night vision goggles.

Sixty days and a $1,500 fine?

"That's just the cost of doing business for these guys," Gaines says.

DNR fisheries chief Eric Schwaab agrees it's time to revise the law and points system.

"We're not out to get people who just have a bad day," he says. "We want to punish the truly bad actors out there, commercial and recreational."

Natural Resources Police officers find that when they do build a case against someone like Pannebaker, they have to go before a district judge, many of whom don't understand the gravity of poaching or the point system.

"Everything has to work perfectly for someone to be found in violation," says Diane Baynard, a member of the Coastal Conservation Association who tracked one of the biggest thefts in recent years as it lurched through the legal system.

Officers arrested 87 Dorchester County watermen in 2000 for falsifying records involving 250,000 pounds of striped bass targeted for market.

Michael Maloney, the state's attorney, let the minor players walk or pay minuscule fines. After he lost his re-election bid last fall, he shelved the remaining cases, all considered by DNR officers to be the strongest.

Great deterrent, eh?

"In the vast majority of cases, you're dealing with very few [license] suspensions because very few people cross the statutory threshold," Schwaab says.

This time last year, a bill to simplify the system stalled after watermen complained - rightly so - that they were not consulted. The recreational folks agreed to pull back and reorganize for this session.

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