An eclectic group of outdoors lovers, conservationists and animal rights advocates are asking state lawmakers to toughen poaching laws and give Natural Resources Police officers more authority and tools to do their jobs.
In testimony and written pleas before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Tuesday, representatives of the organizations painted a grim picture of a law enforcement agency that has seen its responsibilities grow while its ranks have shrunk by nearly half in the last 15 years.
"Today's [Chesapeake] Bay criminals are more intelligent and more elusive than ever before," said Dave Smith, executive director of the 7,000-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association. "Lack of law enforcement and proper prosecution has created a confident breed of violators who disregard all penalties associated with their actions."
Senate Bill 987, called the Conservation Law Enforcement Act of 2010, would allow officers to review the books of seafood dealers and inspect fish at local markets. It would increase fines for oyster poachers and permit the Department of Natural Resources to sell gear seized from poachers and use the proceeds to pay for law enforcement activities.
Natural Resources Police has jurisdiction over 17,000 miles of waterways and more than 500,000 acres. It also is responsible for patrolling 47 state parks, which see 12 million visitors a year, and protecting the waters around the Bay Bridge, the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, the liquefied natural gas facility at Cove Point and points along the Potomac River near Washington.
The force has dropped from 450 officers in the early 1990s to around 230 today.
"Our plate is full," said Col. George Johnson, NRP superintendent.
Organizations from the Maryland Bowhunters Society and Trout Unlimited to the Humane Society of the United States and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, urged lawmakers to act.
But while the bill provides new tools and power, it does nothing to address the gaping manpower holes. New academy classes have been few and far between, and the number of graduates cannot fill holes left by the 14 to 18 retiring officers each year.
"We're not winning the battle," said Officer First Class Michael Dyson, a union official. "Pretty soon, if you do the math, we won't exist."