Last winter, police found more than five miles of illegal nets filled with more than 12 tons of striped bass.
“It matters because the striped bass are a protected resource,” said Corporal Roy Rafter, as he stood in the patrol boat, near a screen with electronic images of the Bay’s bottom. “Striped bass are a migratory fish, and this happens to be their spawning ground. We have an obligation to make sure that this fish gets safely through this area and into other areas.”
The poaching incidents last January and February sparked heightened vigilance among Maryland officials, who purchased new side-scan sonar systems for police boats to detect illegal nets. The Maryland General Assembly passed laws last year that increase penalties for poaching to $25,000; allow the state to revoke commercial fishing licenses more easily; and allow officers to search the cabins and compartments of fishing boats without probable cause. New regulations require commercial fishermen to put their license numbers on all nets.
Police are now using these powers for the first time.
The patrol boat motors just south of the Bay Bridge, between several commercial fishing boats. Watermen haul in the lines of what are called gill nets, which are like submerged volleyball nets, with five-inch-wide openings to catch striped bass by their gills, while letting smaller fish pass through. To be legal, the nets must be free-floating and constantly monitored by fishermen. (The illegal nets discovered last winter were anchored and unmonitored).
The patrol boat pulls up to a fishing boat called the Shellfish 2. Officers leap aboard to conduct a surprise inspection.
The officers check the nets folded in wooden boxes, finding that each is properly numbered. Waterman Leo James, 67, said he does not mind having his nets checked, because poachers steal from not only the Bay, but also from honest watermen.
“It don’t bother me. I ain’t doing nothing wrong,” James said. “This just stops people from doing things illegal, that’s all.”
Sgt. Art Windemuth said police are using cameras, radar, and other electric devices to make sure watermen don’t dredge for oysters in protected areas. In 2009, Maryland more than doubled the size of its oyster sanctuaries, to more than 9,000 acres. But these expanded sanctuaries need to be protected, because in the past, at least 75 percent of oyster sanctuaries in Maryland have been victimized by poaching, according to one estimate by University of Maryland researcher.
“We don’t want to infringe on anyone’s rights,” Sgt. Windemuth said. “But when we have a public resource, a public treasure if you will, we take that responsibility very seriously. And we must protect it for future generations.”
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said that he has no objections to the state’s use of the electronic equipment to deter poaching. “The fishermen were stealing from the other fishermen," Simns said. “If it will help the problem, we don’t have any problem with it.
Simns added, however, that the new laws passed by the General Assembly last spring make it clear that watermen working the Bay have zero privacy.
Natural Resource police say their use of the new laws and technology are ways of getting creative to protect 17,000 miles of waterways with a police force that has been trimmed by almost half over the last decade because of budget cuts.
Vigorous enforcement sends a message that limits need to be respected by everyone on the Bay, so that wildlife remains healthy and sustainable, and so that overzealous fishermen don’t fish themselves into extinction.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation