Natural Resources Police patrol boats Monday found two more illegal fishing nets in the waters south of Kent Island and seized another half-ton of striped bass. The agency also announced that the reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the poachers who have netted more than 10 tons of fish has increased to $10,000.
The first net was hauled out at 2 p.m. near Poplar Island. The 600-yard net, which officers estimated to be in the water since last year, contained "a couple of rockfish that were released alive and 200 to 300 horseshoe crabs," said Sgt. Art Windemuth, NRP spokesman.
The second net, pulled in the evening, was about a mile south of the illegal nets found off Bloody Point last week. The 1,200-yard submerged net contained 1,159 pounds of striped bass, which were sold at market, Windemuth said. Once again, the 73-foot buoy tender M/V Widener was called in to help lift the fish-filled net.
Investigators believe the newest net may have been deployed by poachers after the initial discovery of illegal nets, said Col. George Johnson, superintendent of NRP.
"It's beyond comprehension," Johnson said. "This is a blatant disregard for our regulations and our resources."
Johnson said if they can prove the poached fish were destined for markets outside of Maryland, federal law could be used. The Lacey Act — which makes it a crime to traffic in wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, transported or sold — was used to break the Chesapeake Bay striped bass black market responsible for the poaching of 1.63 million pounds with a market value of $6.54 million. Johnson said NRP has been in contact with federal wildlife agents and would ask for assistance if the case warranted it.
Patrol boats continue to troll the area around Kent Island and the Choptank and Chester rivers with grappling hooks.
"We're still looking," said Windemuth. "I wouldn't be surprised to find more. We're continuing to receive tips on our Catch-A-Poacher hot line [800-635-6124] and are aggressively following up tips. With the public's help, we can get a handle on this."
So far NRP officers have recovered nearly three miles of illegal nets, approaching last year's total.
The $7,000 reward offered last week by the Department of Natural Resources was augmented yesterday by $2,500 from the Humane Society of the United States and a total of $500 from the Maryland Watermen's Association and the Maryland Charter Boat Association. In addition to the $5,000 in seed money from the state, other contributors are the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Coastal Conservation Association Maryland.
The state also closed the commercial gill net season to ensure that Maryland does not exceed its February quota.
Meanwhile, a state Senate committee held the first hearing on a series of three bills filed by Sen. Brian Frosh to require DNR to revoke the licenses of poachers of oysters, striped bass and blue crabs.
Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the current penalty for oyster poaching calls for a fine of $1,000 for a first offense. His proposal would yank the license of a waterman who knowingly violated fishing regulations.
"It's not a mistake when you're out there at night, when you're one mile inside an oyster sanctuary, when you're harvesting oysters with the wrong type of equipment. We're seeing really extreme examples of poaching that go virtually unpunished," Frosh said. "It's a license. It's a privilege. It's not a right."
Frank Dawson, assistant secretary of DNR, said of the nine watermen who had their licenses suspended last year, three of them have been cited for violations this year.
To help deter repeat offenders, Sen. Paul Pinsky has filed a bill that would impose a $25,000 fine and or 1 year in jail for any waterman convicted of a fishing law violation while under suspension or revocation.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said his group will be working with DNR to make things even tougher.
He said that after a crackdown last year near Rock Hall, officers moved down the bay to Kent Island with good results. Now it's up to the honest watermen to help weed out the remaining renegades, even if it means new restrictions on them.
"They're upset and willing to take a hit. Honest watermen can't compete with the dishonest ones. If we have to make things hard on ourselves to make it even harder on the law breakers, we'll do it," Simns said.