Harrison penalty needs to measure up

August 20, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

Just as sure as God made little striped rockfish and created humans bound and determined to catch them regardless of the rules, Buddy Harrison never expected that his most recent foray into the world of poaching would stir up such a firestorm.

But because the charter-boat captain with 50 Chesapeake Bay years under his keel and three similar convictions on his record decided to flout the law again, the state has decided it's time to pull out the big bat.

The two advisory boards appointed by the governor to help mold fish policy will meet Thursday night at the Department of Natural Resources headquarters in Annapolis to decide what to do with people like Tilghman Island's self-proclaimed "Boss Hogg."

Everyone is invited to attend the 7 p.m. get-together of the Sport Fish Advisory Commission and the Tidal Fish Advisory Commission.

It won't be pretty. Nor should it be.

After one of his last slap-on-the-wrist transgressions, some anglers began carrying "Tilghman Island Rulers," regular rulers with the "12" crossed out and "18" written in as a tongue-in-cheek reminder that there are different rules for different people.

The ticket given to Harrison on July 22 shows why the punishment didn't fit the crime. Although it is crossed out, presumably by the Natural Resources Police officer who issued it, the citation lists the size of each of the 31 undersized striped bass in his possession: nine fish at 14 1/2 inches; seven fish at 15 1/2 inches; 10 fish at 16 inches; and five fish at 17 inches.

With the minimum legal size at 18 inches, Harrison's brazenness is enough to take your breath away.

"We had no idea," says Howard King, the straight-shooting head of DNR's fisheries service. "When we heard about the citation, we assumed it was for an eighth of an inch or something."

King says the law wasn't constructed with something like Harrison's blatant transgression in mind.

Privately, DNR brass is throwing around the phrase "license suspension" when they chat about Harrison, who always blames someone else for the pickle he's in.

This time, it was his medication and his first mate. Earlier, old newspaper clippings show, it was his son and employees of his seafood processing house.

Maybe next time Osama bin Laden will take the fall.

From my way of thinking, though, the $310 total penalty - which includes court costs - is almost beside the point. The way Maryland's law is set up, Harrison had the option to pay a "pre-set" fine or go to trial.

Since when does the accused get to pick his poison?

"Deputy, sure I was going 40 miles over the speed limit, but jeez, I can't afford to take the hit on my car insurance. How about we just write down that I was going 10?"

"Officer, I killed my wife. But I don't have time to stand trial for murder. Isn't there something in a misdemeanor I can plead to?"

The ball's in your court, folks.

There are people on the fishing advisory commissions ready, willing and able to take on the task of rewriting the regulations. You just have to show them you care.

If you have the time Thursday night, show up. If you don't have the time, send DNR officials an e-mail.

Menhaden mystery

A leap of faith should be an Olympic sport. There certainly are plenty of contestants.

We are taking such a leap with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's overwhelming vote to accept Virginia's proposal on the five-year menhaden catch cap.

Between the "don't thank me, thank yous" and enough verbal kisses on each cheek to satisfy any figure skater, the commission Wednesday swapped a proposal it approved last August for a last-minute one drafted by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine.

Maryland and Virginia will each hold a hearing on the new scheme in the coming weeks and the ASMFC will accept public comment until Oct. 6 after which time it will rubber stamp the plan (is there any doubt?).

We're stuck with this one, folks. Two things stand out.

First, the ASMFC committed a bait-and-switch, holding extensive public hearings and accepting public comment on one plan and then choosing something different and offering up an abbreviated comment period.

As New Jersey's commission representative, Peter Himchak, noted, the ASMFC's proposal "took enormous effort to develop" while the new scheme appears to be "a reward" to Virginia and Omega Protein, the commercial fleet and processor, for not meeting the compliance date of July 1.

Indeed, it seems like the ASMFC is bending over backward for one company with 250 employees and one state that doesn't have the good sense or gumption to protect a fish that filters Chesapeake Bay waters and feeds striped bass and bluefish.

Second, several commissioners told me that this is the first time in their memory that the ASMFC has allowed a "credit" to a commercial entity, such as Omega Protein. The deal is that if Omega falls under the annual cap of 109,020 metric tons one year, it can apply that leftover amount to the next year, up to 122,740 metric tons.

That's not a good precedent.

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