At 1 p.m. tomorrow (March 16), the House Environmental Matters Committee will hold hearings on two bills that would crack down on the illegal harvest of fish, crabs and oysters. The first, House Bill 1154, sponsored by state Del. James Gilchrist and colleagues, would allow the state to revoke the commercial fishing licenses for people who fish will illegal nets or equipment or commit other violations. The second, House Bill 1225, would allow the state to impose a $25,000 fine or imprisonment of up to a year for commercial fishing on a revoked or suspended license.
Now, it may seem obvious that the state should be able to yank the licenses of people who break the law. But, the sad truth is that repeat violations are so common on the Chesapeake Bay –- and historically, so often ignored -–that many folks simply laugh off natural resources regulations.
Oyster poaching is so widespread and devastating to reef sanctuaries that experts have concluded “there is no single factor more important to the future of ecological restoration and aquaculture than to address and dramatically reduce the ongoing illegal oyster harvesting,” according to a study by the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation investigated the issue in a report released last July. We found one waterman, who was caught by police illegally dredging for oysters off Talbot County in January 2010, had a record of more than 30 previous natural resource violations. And this was not an isolated incident. Forty-three percent of Maryland's 3,940 active commercial watermen were charged with violating the state's commercial oystering and fishing laws in 2008, according to the report.
The issue of illegal fishing bubbled again to the public’s notice this winter. On February 1, Maryland Natural Resources Police found the first of four illegally anchored gill nets with more than 20,000 pounds of striped bass south of Kent Island in the Bay.
Police went on the hunt for the law-breakers, who still remain at large. Meanwhile, 10 days later, on February 11, officers found more illegal nets with 3,879 pounds of rockfish. The incidents forced the state to cancel two weeks of the rockfish season.
In decades and centuries past, illegal oyster harvesting and fishing was something of an outlaw tradition on the Chesapeake -– inspiring “oyster wars” and adventure yarns. But it is not amusing anymore, when the Bay’s oyster populations have crashed, and striped bass are stolen by the ton, so that law-abiding watermen lose their homes as the Bay loses its health.
Too many taps on the wrists for poachers have created a management crisis on the Chesapeake.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources)