Groups at odds over whether to allow netting of rockfish

Watermen's group wants gill net season to resume; fishing organization supports keeping ban in place

February 15, 2011|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

One of the Maryland's leading watermen's groups is calling for the state to lift the ban on netting rockfish while a fishing organization is urging the Department of Natural Resources to stand its ground until it can deal with a poaching ring responsible for the taking of 12 tons of fish.

The dueling messages come during a week when fishing advisory groups are scheduled to meet in Annapolis to discuss poaching and one month before a regional fisheries management commission is set to meet in Northern Virginia.

Gibby Dean, president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association, sent a letter to DNR last week, with copies to state lawmakers, asking that the agency reopen the gill net season Feb. 21, saying that watermen working the rivers and lower bay "depend on this late February quota to pay their bills, feed their families and get them through the remaining months of winter."

The gill net season is to conclude at the end of the month.

Dean said watermen need to know this week about reopening the season because they have to prepare their gear and move boats nearer the commercial fishing grounds.

He ended his letter by saying, "Please do not punish the entire industry because of the illegal actions of a few."

But in response, Coastal Conservation Association Maryland said the season should not reopen until three issues are settled: DNR can demonstrate that illegal gill net fishing is under control; that the fishery can be effectively managed; and that the fishery's catch can be fully accounted for.

"The recent discovery of anchored gill nets, coupled with the knowledge that they have been set in the depths of the Bay for years, is clear evidence of the problems that exist within the fishery," wrote Ed Liccione, CCA MD state chairman. "As documented in the recent federal investigation, fish from these illegal nets may be bypassing the state's management and tracking system in unquantifiable numbers."

Tom O'Connell, Fisheries Service director, said there likely would be no response this week to Dean's letter.

DNR closed the season Feb. 4 after 10 tons of striped bass were discovered in submerged gill nets near Bloody Point off the southern tip of Kent Island. Over the weekend, Natural Resources Police officers discovered more nets in the vicinity filled with an additional 2 tons of fish. Illegal nets also have been hauled up in the Choptank and Chester rivers.

DNR said it had to close the season to ensure the state would not exceed its monthly quota.

But Dean said between 185,500 pounds and 205,522 pounds remain, and any additional illegal fish found from Feb. 21 to the end of the month could be deducted from December's quota.

The reward leading to the arrest and conviction of the poachers has grown to $22,500 with a contribution from Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association.

Meanwhile, the Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission will meet Tuesday to discuss the issue, and the Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission — which consists largely of commercial interests — will meet Thursday night. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will take up the poaching issue next month.

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