The $60,000 poached fish

Our view: Record haul of striped bass caught in illegal gill nets raises questions over how the state regulates fishery

February 03, 2011

Those who would like to see an end to the commercial harvest of striped bass in Maryland could have received no bigger boost to their cause than what has transpired this week near the appropriately-named Bloody Point at the southern tip of Kent Island.

In a matter of two days, Natural Resources Police hauled in more than 10 tons of striped bass, also known as rockfish, caught in illegal gill nets anchored to the bottom. That 20,000-pound bounty translates into about $60,000 in wholesale value but could prove far more costly, not only to the watermen involved but to all those who harvest seafood from Maryland waters.

Recreational fishing groups are already calling for watermen to keep their hands off striped bass permanently. Certainly, their outrage is justified: Along with the fish, police confiscated one submerged net that was 2,100 yards long, or enough to wrap around a football field six times.

Not that the incident was too great a shock to law enforcement. Last year, police confiscated a total of 15,000 yards of illegal gill net but charged fewer than a half-dozen people for illegal netting of striped bass.

That's because it's exceedingly difficult to prosecute such cases unless the scofflaws are caught red-handed. Illegal gill nets are left unattended and usually harvested at night. Meanwhile, there are only 19 Natural Resources Police officers to keep track of the waters along the upper Eastern Shore from the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to the Nanticoke River, a distance roughly the equivalent of Baltimore to Ocean City.

What makes this week's incidents of illegal netting particularly troubling is that they come just a few months after the sentencing of the last of the rockfish poachers and wholesalers caught in a much-publicized federal crackdown two years ago. The black market ring uncovered by police operated on a breathtaking scale (1.6 million pounds of fish) and required 8 years to investigate and prosecute.

Watermen say poaching involves a relatively few bad apples and that honest fishermen will offer tips to police. But it's hard to believe that such illegal operations aren't more commonly known, particularly in the close-knit Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland communities where most watermen live and where many still regard DNR police with suspicion.

There are about 1,200 people licensed to catch striped bass on a commercial basis in Maryland, so the fishery is unlikely to be shut down — nor should it be. A rockfish dinner is a gastronomic joy that the non-fishing public should not be denied. Certainly, the species is not endangered. Last year, Maryland watermen harvested about 1.9 million pounds, about 883,000 pounds by attended drift gill nets, which are legal.

But it's fair to question whether the catch is properly regulated even with licensing reforms and increased penalties for violations adopted by the state over the past two years. An individual quota system where watermen would be given an annual catch limit (instead of only a daily one) might greatly reduce the motivation to poach.

As it is, the fish confiscated by police will count against the total commercial catch allowed for the season so the poachers have already hurt law-abiding watermen. But here's another step the Department of Natural Resources should consider: Start offering cash rewards for tips leading to arrests and convictions.

The fish swimming the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries belong to all Marylanders. If watermen can't police their business voluntarily, then it may be time for lawmakers and state regulators to take more drastic actions.

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