Time for every fishing boat to be tracked via transponder

Rash of poaching proves that drastic steps are needed now

May 14, 2011

The folks who decide how we gather and protect the Chesapeake Bay's bounty may need to borrow Capt. Jack Sparrow's wacky compass to keep their bearings.

Clearly, the headline-grabbing activities of poachers last year and this year have presented the state and its fisheries managers with a window of opportunity to make sweeping changes that address sustainability, accountability and enforceability, not only on the commercial side but on the recreational side, too. But given the attention span of our lawmakers, that window won't be open very long.

Recognizing the potential for a sea change, the Maryland Watermen's Association made the first move, hiring Pete Jensen to help protect its interests. The long-time Department of Natural Resources official ended his ties with state government in 2005 amid concerns that he was too cozy with the commercial industry.

That perception hasn't changed in the recreational and conservation communities, which were flabbergasted by the news. From experience, they know Jensen knows how things work, has the instincts of a riverboat gambler and the nerve of a man playing with the house's money.

Jensen is expected to help the watermen negotiate the transition to a new form of blue crab management, which right now seems mired in the usual swamp of suspicion.

A ballyhooed deal between the watermen, DNR and the Environmental Defense Fund to hammer out a crab deal most likely will end in August after a year of frustration and failure. EDF was paid $500,000 to coax the watermen to accept a catch shares program: DNR would give each licensed crabber a guaranteed piece of the bay-wide quota, which could be used or sold.

But the watermen mistrust catch shares, fearing a few deep-pocket interests will buy out the little guys. And no one has proven it can work here because while the winter survey provides an accurate picture of how many crabs we have to start with, the harvest reports submitted by watermen are grossly inaccurate. How can you give someone a share of something when you don't know how much you have?

Once Jensen gets whatever he can for the crabbers he might be called upon to lend his expertise on striped bass, another species sure to be debated again this year.

It's clear that lots of recreational anglers would like to see all commercial striped bass nets banned from the bay. An online petition has collected nearly 6,000 signatures from people asking DNR to eliminate gill nets, fyke nets, drift nets — everything but hairnets.

That's not likely to happen and I'll give you one good reason: Barbara Mikulski.

The state's senior senator is a formidable force on the bay. I'm talking gale-force, you-can't-shout-over-this power. Federal money to pay for bay restoration and oyster projects and to support the state's watermen flows through her.

If you think she's going to allow the commercial striped bass industry to be destroyed without a shred of evidence that eliminating nets will stop poaching or improve the fish population, I've got a leaky skipjack to sell you.

And if for some strange reason the good senator remains on the sidelines, there's the General Assembly to be reckoned with. Good luck getting the votes to throw people out of work in this economy.

So, short of coming up with the millions needed to hire and train more Natural Resources Police officers and giving them back their surveillance helicopter, what are lawmakers to do?

My guess is the state will opt for 21st century technology.

Translation? Requiring all watermen to have transponders on their boats that to track them while they fish, crab or oyster.

Think of it, a fishing boat leaves Rock Hall and at the NRP communications and dispatch center at Sandy Point State Park a marker appears on the big screen with the boat's ID. The boat enters closed waters, a sanctuary or is fishing when it shouldn't be and the cops know it.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requires a vessel monitoring system (VMS) on more than 5,000 commercial boats fishing for specific species in federal waters.

Special Agent Logan Gregory of NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement says the 23-year old system is "a deterrent" to fishing in closed areas and fishing out of season. It also helps managers keep track of the level of fishing activity.

The $3,000 units not only transmit information, they also receive messages from NOAA about closures and warnings when they stray into forbidden areas. The data is protected by federal law to prevent one commercial fisherman from acquiring proprietary information about another, Gregory says.

The fisherman must pay for the device, but NOAA has a grant program that reimburses the buyer for the cost of one unit. Maryland might have to find the money to offer a similar program.

Paging Barbara Mikulski. Please pick up the white courtesy phone.


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