(Baltimore Sun photo by Candus…)
ABOARD THE M/V SANDUSKY — — The Chesapeake Bay's bounty was turned into a macabre tableau Monday morning as an illegal net at least 600 yards long and filled with decaying striped bass and other fish was partially pulled from the waters off Tilghman Island.
As a crane whined and strained against the load, the net broke the surface and revealed a tangled web of large silver fish and brightly colored lures both caught up in the poacher's gear. A recreational angler whose fishing lines became ensnared in the mess Sunday morning alerted Natural Resources Police.
"The officers attempted to pull it up but it was so full of fish that they had to call for the Sandusky," said NRP Sgt. Art Windemuth.
But the 80-foot Sandusky and its crane was no match for the heavy winds and seas that pushed the boat around and made walking treacherous. The crew marked the site with a buoy and will return when conditions improve.
Baltimore businessman Chris Jacobs, who was fishing in a baywide tournament Sunday, said 15 rods on three boats snagged the net.
"I knew exactly what we had. I cut my lines free and punched the GPS to mark the position. I called the Poacher Hotline and stayed in the area. Less than two hours later, NRP arrived with grappling hooks," Jacobs said. "I know it wasn't the first time and unfortunately I don't think it's going to be the last time."
Windemuth said the net appeared to be from earlier this year. The commercial gill net season has been closed since the end of February and isn't scheduled to reopen until December.
This is spawning season on the Chesapeake Bay, the nursery for at least three-quarters of the striped bass population on the East Coast. State fisheries managers put many safeguards in place to protect the fish, but there's nothing to stop the unmarked, submerged nets.
In February, officers hauled in 5.5 miles of illegal nets off Kent Island holding 12.6 tons of striped bass. The Department of Natural Resources closed the commercial season for two weeks to assess the situation before allowing watermen to fish the final two days.
"When is enough, enough?" said Tony Friedrich, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland. "Illegal nets continue to be a drain not only on natural resources but also on Maryland's taxpayers. The mounting costs of enforcement are only overshadowed by the costs to our environment. How much longer must Maryland citizens support this illegal activity?"
DNR is offering a $30,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the poachers.
Windemuth said federal agencies are involved in the investigation. Several search warrants and subpoenas have been issued.