Striped bass season ends with a whimper

Weather contributes to expected low harvest on last day of gill net fishing

February 28, 2011|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

First, poachers took away their livelihoods. Then Maryland watermen battled two days of brutal weather as they tried to salvage the final days of February's striped bass gill net season.

The double whammy proved too much.

Friday's harvest was 32,346 pounds — about half the daily catch before the season was closed Feb. 4. Monday's tally won't be known until Tuesday afternoon, but traffic was light at check stations up and down the Chesapeake Bay.

United Shellfish Co. at Kent Narrows was processing a small amount of fish from other wholesalers to keep workers busy. At Harrison Oyster Co. on Tilghman Island, three boats had weighed in a total of 600 pounds by noon.

"It's a shame," said Gibby Dean, president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association. "We totally expected it. When you go back fishing after three weeks, the fish have scattered. It takes a few days to find those fish again. And the weather didn't help."

The season closed after Natural Resources Police patrol boats pulled up thousands of yards of illegal nets filled with 10 tons of striped bass, also known as rockfish. Officers hauled in an additional 2.6 tons of fish, some from nets set after the ban was enacted.

Confiscated fish were deducted from February's quota. After determining that watermen weren't likely to exceed the 200,000 remaining pounds, the Department of Natural Resources decided last week to reopen the season for two days.

When Dean saw Friday's dismal forecast, he asked the DNR to move the first fishing day to Saturday. State officials declined because Maryland law requires 48 hours of public notice and it proved impossible to shift the work schedules of officers and biologists monitoring the check-in stations.

That made Monday the make or break day, Dean said.

With stars dotting the sky, commercial boats slipped from their berths all around the bay. Watermen crossed their fingers as they played out their nets, hoping to hit the jackpot and beat the leading edge of a powerful cold front packing dangerous storms.

The crew aboard the 42-foot Marsan out of Rock Hall was pulling nets at 10 a.m. near the LP buoy off the northern tip of Kent Island. Out on the water since 3 a.m., the watermen were hoping to salvage something from their season. But for all their hard work, the nets yielded just two fish, 191/2-inches each.

Patrol boats, too, were out early.

"They had only two days, and Friday was bad. If they guess wrong today, it's over," said NRP Cpl. Roy Rafter, a former waterman who boarded the Marsan and heard the crew's tale of woe. "And it all goes back to those knuckleheads who took the season away."

Investigators are still pursuing tips, and a reward leading to the arrest and conviction of the poachers is $30,500, consisting of donations from the state, watermen, recreational fishing organizations, conservation groups and the public.

The poaching has fueled public anger toward the watermen. More than 5,000 people have signed paper and online petitions asking DNR to ban all nets from the Chesapeake. The drive, organized by a Severna Park angler, has attracted national attention.

DNR Secretary John Griffin has promised to meet with stakeholders to see whether the gill net fishery can be modified to ensure more accountability. If those changes and stricter penalties don't work, nets may have to be phased out, he said.

Anti-poaching legislation will be heard Tuesday in the state Senate. One bill would give DNR the authority to revoke a watermen's license to harvest striped bass or blue crabs after an administrative hearing. Another bill would set a $25,000 fine and a year in jail for a waterman convicted of poaching on a suspended license.

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