Low fines for fish poaching out of line

August 13, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

Let's get one thing clear: There's plenty of blame to go around when the question is raised about why fish poaching fines are so low.

It's easy to point the finger at the Department of Natural Resources, protector of fish and critters and keeper of the law.

But don't stop there. Blame state lawmakers, prosecutors, judges, conservation organizations and fishing groups. And, yes, blame outdoors writers.

The charging of charter Capt. Buddy Harrison for allegedly having 31 undersized striped bass in his possession last month has been the talk of the Maryland fishing universe.

Harrison, a 50-year Chesapeake Bay veteran with three similar convictions on his record, pleaded guilty in Talbot District Court on July 24 and paid $310 in fines and court costs. Not per fish, as DNR assistant secretary Mike Slattery insisted to The Washington Post. Three hundred ten dollars total.

(First of all, what's the deal with Slattery, who lacks law enforcement certification, driving a brand-new, fully equipped police cruiser? Second, why would he be so woefully uninformed about the law a full week after the story broke? )

So the law stinks. Everyone agrees.

But how did it happen?

Well, DNR only proposes laws that will pass muster with Annapolis lawmakers. That's just self-preservation. If lawmakers don't like the ideas, they deep-six them or rearrange the words to please constituents, and then, look out.

Delegates and state senators, who can barely read the fine print when it comes to electricity deregulation, can hardly be expected to give a hoot about the stealing of a fish or two or the jacklighting of white-tailed deer who eat constituents' shrubs and run into their cars.

So in the end, they pass laws they believe will be embraced by prosecutors and enforced by judges.

Prosecutors, who also run for election, go after murderers, child molesters, robbers and burglars, with an occasional white-collar criminal thrown in. That's all most of them have time for and those are the crimes that get headlines.

Judges, political appointees who also need voter approval, see dockets full of bad guys to deal with. This ain't Judge Judy, where justice is dispensed between commercials for bathroom cleaner and sleeping pills.

Conservation organizations are busy on the big-picture stuff: fish health, bay health, pollution - the stuff they use to raise money to fill their coffers.

Fishing groups tend to be law-abiding people who don't think about fines and other penalties until something like l'affaire Buddy comes along.

And outdoors writers would rather cover stuff outdoors than prowl the halls of Annapolis and hold lawmakers and DNR accountable. Because they've learned that when they do chase the fine print, they get complaints from readers who say that it's a waste of print.

While we're playing the blame game, throw in voters. In a previous life, I was a political reporter. I never once heard a natural resources question at a candidates forum, debate or open house.

Shame on DNR? Shame on all of us. This happened on our watch.

It looks like the heavy lifting in this case will fall to a group of recreational anglers, commercial fishermen and guides who helped revise the penalty schedule three years ago to address the problem of repeat offenders.

Diane Baynard, who serves on the governor's Sport Fishing Advisory Commission, has asked to have the issue of outdated fines placed on the group's agenda.

"Because of the last revision we did, they took away some licenses this year and last that they wouldn't have been able to take before," she says. "There definitely needs to be something done again. I'm not going to let this go."

I checked last week with fish and game law enforcement officers in a half-dozen Eastern Seaboard states. Most of them have stiffer fines and penalties for keeping undersized striped bass. But not by much.

Here's what I found.

New Jersey fines violators $100 per fish, with a penalty structure containing increased fines for repeat offenders and egregious actions. Officers also have the authority to seize gear.

Rhode Island treats poaching by recreational anglers like a civil offense, says Administrative Court Officer Jennifer Connors. The fine is $50 per striped bass, with no graduated penalties for repeat offenses. Charter captains with previous convictions can have their licenses suspended.

North Carolina's fines are set by weight, with the total penalty for a single fish, including court costs, running from $50 to $250, says Maj. Walter Davis, a 25-year law enforcement veteran.

Where North Carolina nails poachers is on "replacement costs." The amount is based on what the market price of the fish would be or what it would cost a hatchery to raise a fish, on average $25 a pound.

"This definitely helps a lot with repeat offenders," Davis says. "It's the way to go."

Quite a deal

Finally, my apologies to Will Baker of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for saying he called the menhaden deal cooked up by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine a "compromise." I took the quote from The Sun story about the July 31 news conference. It was Kaine and Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. who called it a compromise. Baker praised the scheme for its "wonderful balance between conservation and commerce."

Sorry, Will, the deal isn't balanced, either. Omega Protein gets to, in the words of its spokesman Toby Gascon, "continue [fishing] at the same levels we have been."

And we all get to watch them do it. How balanced.

The deal is still putting lipstick on a pig.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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