State officials announced Friday that they have raised the stakes in their fight against striped bass poachers who netted 10 tons of fish this week. They closed down the commercial gill net season three weeks early, offered a $7,000 reward and filed legislation to give the Department of Natural Resources more enforcement authority.
For two days, Natural Resources Police officers pulled up thousands of yards of submerged net illegally anchored in the fish-rich waters around Kent Island and in the Choptank and Chester rivers. When they were through, they had uncovered the largest poaching operation of its type since the end of the striped bass fishing moratorium more than two decades ago.
"These crimes cannot be tolerated," said Joe Gill, deputy secretary for the Department of Natural Resources. "Make no mistake, poaching rockfish is stealing. It is stealing from every Marylander."
NRP Superintendent Col. George Johnson said investigators are getting leads and patrol boats are still combing the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for more nets.
"We haven't had anything like this in the last 25 years," he said.
Given the daily catch limit of 300 pounds per permit or 1,200 pounds per vessel, it would be difficult for poachers to find buyers in Maryland for 10 tons of fish without tipping off authorities. Johnson said that investigators are looking beyond local fish wholesalers.
"There are states up north of us that will pay top dollar for rockfish," he said. "We believe that's the driving factor."
By closing the season early, DNR hopes to avoid exceeding the monthly commercial quota of 354,318 pounds and assuage the anger of regional regulatory officials, who will be meeting next month and have a history of questioning Maryland's striped bass management efforts.
The reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the poachers is being offered by the state, Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, the Maryland Charter Boat Association and the Maryland Watermen's Association.
State Sen. Brian Frosh is hoping the incident will help generate support for bills to give NRP officers the authority to search below decks of commercial fishing boats and allow DNR to revoke the licenses of those convicted of striped bass poaching.
"It's both infuriating and depressing at the same time," said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "You've got thousands of fish being killed. It's such a waste of a valuable resource."
Frosh, sponsor of an oyster poaching penalty bill, said he was reluctant to add a striped bass bill to the calendar this year. "But when you see this happen twice in one week in two places, it really does begin to sound like an emergency."
Maryland was allotted 1.9 million pounds of striped bass for the commercial industry this year, with the total divided by type of fishing gear. The 2011 gill net season runs in January and February, each with a separate allotment.
After deducting the legitimate catch and the 10 tons of illegal fish, DNR biologists saw that just 88,000 pounds remained for February, "a little bit more than one day of fishing," said Tom O'Connell, Fisheries Service director.
With a thin margin for error and members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission asking for an accounting, O'Connell said DNR had little choice but to shut down the netters. He held out hope that the season might reopen for a day at the end of the month.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said closing the season "is the right thing to do. We don't want to go over quota and until we know how many fish have been taken illegally, it's the safest thing to do."
Simns speculated that the poaching was the work of two boats and the reward "might work. You might get a crew member who needs the money to spill the beans."
The poaching incident couldn't have come at a worse time for Maryland watermen. Recreational groups are beginning a campaign to get striped bass classified a "game fish" off limits to the commercial industry. Of the 12 states that belong to ASMFC, five states and the District of Columbia prohibit commercial striped bass fishing.
"They're just stupid," said Simns of the poachers. "I can't believe they'd do that with the legislature in session. They're just giving [recreational groups] ammunition."
DNR's Gill, who is a former state assistant attorney general, said he is under no illusions that these latest efforts will solve the poaching problem.
After a state-federal sting uncovered a multi-million dollar striped bass black market on the Potomac River, Maryland tightened regulations and toughened penalties. It bought new surveillance equipment and patrol boats. Last winter, NRP stepped up enforcement in the waters around Rock Hall on the Eastern Shore, arresting eight watermen and hauling in thousands of yards of net.
This year, the action has just moved south a few miles.
"It's going to take more than a year, year-and-a-half to work," said Gill. "We're just getting started."