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Poaching Epidemic in Bay Inspires Legislation to Boost Penalties

Illegalrockfish The illegal netting of more than 12 tons of striped bass near Kent Island in the Chesapeake Bay this winter proved a dramatic illustration of why Maryland must strengthen penalties for poaching.

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) 


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There should not even be a question about this. Absolutely they should lose their license,a hefty fine imposed and jail time. We are all supposed to be bound by the same laws; Commercial and Recreational.
A law without a backbone and without repercussions for breaking it, is a joke. Our precious resources are not a joke. Rockfish( and oysters) are our "Chesapeake Gold."
If these bills do not pass, then our government may as well abolish the DNR, and all other rules and regulations imposed upon our State Treasure: OUR CHESAPEAKE BAY.
IF these laws are not passed- and passed NOW,then what they have passed is a precedent for any citizen or waterman enabling them to fight any charge in a court of law- as a result of not holding everyone to the same standard and not enforcing the laws on the books equally.
Food for thought- which might be the only remaining food coming from the Chesapeake. "THE CHESAPEAKE BAY WILL ONLY BE AS GOOD AS THOSE WHO ARE CHARGED WITH ITS PROTECTION"and you can quote me.
Yes, I am passionate about MY Chesapeake Bay, as should we all be.

I have nothing to add to what Cynthia has said. Well put.

Seize their boats and gear if they are repeat offenders. That would really drive home the point to everyone out the poaching.

This article inspired several comments on CBF's Facebook page, almost all of which were strongly in favor of revoking the fishing permits of poachers. I asked whether it's fair that watermen who break poaching laws have their licenses revoked, YES or NO?

Some of the answers:

* David Alberg: Strengthen penalties for poaching? $25,000 for 12 Tons of fish? That is not strengthened. That is pathetic. The fine should be at least 5 times that if you ever expect it to make a difference. $25,000 for 12 tons of fish is simply cost of doing business. Put some teeth in these penalties!

* Chesapeake Bay Foundation: The bill, HB 1225, would also allow up to a year in prison as a penaty. Tom Pelton.

* David Alberg: We are moving in the right direction, but environmetal penalty schedules are historically so low as to be ineffective. Perhaps more critical to making a difference are prosecuters willing to pursue cases and judges that will use these penalties.

* Tracy Cook King: I saw a boat on the West River yesterday pulling up nets. I had mo idea it was illegal fishing. No wonder the fishermen were giving my husband and I the state down a's we past in our sailboat.

* Mid Atlantic Native Plants: I hit the "like" button but not for liking poaching!

* Nancy Zipin Orons: If it's illegal, then don't do it. There are consequences for "bad" behavior. Just follow the law.

* Thomas Thornton: Yes, Take there license and fine them.

* Brad Striebig: Never grant them another license! I'm a sports fisherman, and this goes on across the bay in so many different ways. It is hard to teach my kids the ethics and enjoyment of fishing, when these criminals are literally stealing the fish from our children.

* Chris Preston: A little bird told me that some major charges (FEDERAL) are going to be handed out to commercial, charter and recreational fisherman. This is after a three year investigation by several government agencies. I think "the fit is going to hit the shan" on April 9 2011. Several states not just bay states.

* Yun Wang: hell yea. if they poach, they lose the license. Is that a question?

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