Proposal would heat things up for poachers

February 07, 2010

Over the past two Sundays, we've looked at natural resources law enforcement as carried out by officers on the water and officials at the controls of a network of cameras and radar sites. There's one more piece: the folks who pass the laws.

Some bills on the drawing board or already in the hopper would give officers more clout and turn the heat up under poachers.

The biggest effort is the so-called Natural Resources Conservation Enforcement Act of 2010, the product of a December summit sponsored by the Maryland Sportsmen's Legislative Foundation. By attracting Attorney General Doug Gansler, district court judges, Natural Resources Police officials, fishing groups and watermen, it kicked off the first serious discussion of what's wrong on the water.

Still not grown up enough to have a letter-number identifier, the proposal would significantly raise fines for poaching oysters, give the Department of Natural Resources the authority to inspect the records and premises of seafood markets and restaurants, and require convicted watermen on probation to wear or have on their boat an electronic monitoring device.

The bill also would allow the NRP to seize gear used by illegal hunters, including firearms and bows, passenger and off-road vehicles, digital cameras, spotlights and spotting scopes, and ammunition.

I think the sponsors left out camo underwear, but I'm sure it was just an oversight.

Most important for the beleaguered boots on the ground, whose footprint gets smaller with each passing year, the bill would require all fines collected by district courts - minus postage and handling - to be put into a fund for the NRP. The transfer of fines from court coffers to cop coffers would be phased in over three years so judges wouldn't have to go cold turkey.

It's creative financing at its best in an election year when bills with fiscal notes will be deader than Elvis.

Unfortunately, it won't happen. See, DNR just cozied up to the judges to get them to take natural resources crimes seriously. It would be bad form to steal their wallets.

Other attempts in the bill to raise money to pay for law enforcement (raising the application fee for a two-year boat registration sticker from $10 to $24, for example) also will be DOA.

But there's so much to like about the bill - and so much lawmakers should fight to save. For example:

Stealing oysters from marked aquaculture areas, sanctuaries, reserves or areas closed by the Department of the Environment could result in a fine of up to $1,500 per bushel and a fine of up to $10,000. Now, there's no per-bushel assessment and the maximum fine is $3,000.

A first-time poacher of striped bass could be fined up to $1,500 a fish; a second violation in a two-year period would result in a fine of up to $2,500 and a license suspension of between one and two years; a third conviction within four years would keep the fine the same but boost the license suspension to two years to five years. Fines collected would go to species and habitat restoration projects.

Senators from the Washington suburbs are offering a bill (SB 342) that clearly lays out the process for revoking the license of an oyster poacher and would prevent that person from continuing to harvest oysters by getting someone to transfer his or her license.

But no good deeds go unpunished.

Fifteen delegates have filed a bill (HB 303) that would require the DNR to prevent the over-harvesting of oysters but also keep oyster harvest areas open "unless ... a specific area of water must be closed for reasons of public safety or homeland security."

The bill's sponsors insist that the DNR not do anything to "discriminate unfairly among groups of fishermen," but also insist that the DNR protect the harvest opportunities "available to tidal fish licensees in the state."

So which is it: prevent the harvesting of too many oysters or keep oyster areas open except in cases of terrorism or botulism? Not discriminate against anyone or protect one group - watermen holding tidal fish licenses?

For answers, I'm guessing the delegates will have to turn to the men behind the curtain: the Maryland Watermen's Association.

Finally, I couldn't pass up this doozy, SB 84. The bill, filed at the request of DNR Secretary John Griffin, would expand from 12 to 15 the number of members of the Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission, the stakeholder group appointed by the governor to give counsel to the Fisheries Service; it does the same thing to the Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission.

Adding more bloat to the sport board, according to the accompanying paperwork, "will strengthen the commission's ability to reflect the increasing variety of constituents and interests involved in recreational fisheries management."

Really? It wasn't too long ago - last year, I believe - that the DNR struggled to fill 12 positions and ended up with a bunch of men, many of whom had already done time on the board. Filling 15 slots will be easier?

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