Rockfish poaching leaves readers wondering

Outdoors Girl answers a few of the questions that popped into her inbox this week

February 05, 2011

A week's worth of news about the striped bass poaching operation around Kent Island that netted 10 tons of fish generated a lot of questions from readers that deadlines simply prevented me from answering individually.

The investigation has just begun, so there's a lot state officials don't know or won't talk about yet. Keep in mind that the last striped bass poaching sting involved state and federal game officers and took more than five years to sort through. This one doesn't appear to be as organized or complex, but building a case against even a few poachers takes time.

With all of that fine print out of the way, let's try to answer some of those questions.

What are gill nets and how long have they been in use?

Gill nets have been around since ancient times, says Fisheries Service biologist Beth Versack. Watermen catching striped bass deploy them with floats on top and a weighted line on the bottom. A drift net hangs like a curtain and moves as the tide does. The mesh can be in different sizes to snare different-sized fish. Typically, the fish swims into the net, gets caught just behind the gill cover and can't back out.

What is the difference between legal and illegal gill nets?

Legal nets drift. The state requires that the waterman remain nearby to release any unintended catch. Anchored gill nets were outlawed in 1992, by the Department of Natural Resources. The submerged nets are difficult to detect and are indiscriminant killers of all fish.

It's a big bay. How did Natural Resources Police know where to look?

The gill net season runs December, January and February, says NRP Sgt. Art Windemuth. The area and tributaries around Kent Island — Eastern Bay, Love Point, Bloody Point and the Chester and Choptank rivers — are part of the traditional fishing grounds, so that narrows the search some. Just as poachers pay spotters to tell them when Natural Resources Police patrol boats leave their docks, officers get tips from informants. These days, officers have a new tool to help them. The Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network — MLEIN — is ramping up and its cameras are giving the NRP communications center views up and down the bay.

What happened to the 10 tons of fish?

Fisheries Service Director Tom O'Connell says biologists took about 400 pounds to continue their research work. The undersized and oversized fish were given to charitable food programs. The bulk of the fish were sold at market for about $2.50 a pound and most of the money will be used to buy law enforcement equipment.

Why did NRP take the fish to market instead of releasing them back into the bay?

Fish caught in a net fight to get out. They lose scales and the protective slime as they thrash. Many of the fish from the Kent Islands nets had to be cut free. It is likely that once released, they would have died, creating another problem — tons of dead fish washing up on shore.

Did the awful weather prohibited the poachers from getting to the fish while they were alive?

NRP officers involved in the case say it's most likely that the poachers who placed their nets in the water days before the start of the season on Feb. 1 suspected they were being watched and decided not to risk trying to retrieve their catch.

If NRP found this net on Monday, probably during the day, and let it back down to catch the poacher, that net fished for more than 12 hours extra. I wonder how many extra fish were needlessly caught under NRP supervision?

Col. George Johnson, NRP superintendent, says typically the illegal nets don't hold a great number of fish. Officers this time had no idea that the first net contained 2.8 tons of fish when their grappling hook snagged the 900-yard net near its middle. It was only when they began pulling it the next morning after their unsuccessful stakeout that they discovered what they had. Johnson notes that the best way to get a conviction and revoke a license is to catch a poacher in the act, which is what his men were trying to do.

I'm generally not a conspiracy thinker but how do we know that someone within Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association or Coastal Conservation Association ranks (not sanctioned of course) didn't do the dirty deed to get total sport fish status?

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, isn't buying that theory, and his membership would have a lot to lose if those two recreational angling groups were successful in getting the Maryland General Assembly to put the striped bass off limits to commercial fishing. Simns suspects this poaching was the work of two boats being operated by "bad apples," who moved their operation from Rock Hall after intense pressure last year from NRP.

I'm an avid angler who fishes every year in Eastern Bay. What can recreational anglers look for to help NRP catch poachers?

Sgt. Windemuth says because anchored gill nets are submerged, they are hard to detect. But anglers may snag a net with their anchor line or fishing hook or they may see someone setting nets that seems out of place. He urges anyone with a tip to call the NRP communications center at 800-628-9944.

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