Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials are grappling with how to manage the striped bass fishery after seizing more than 12 tons of illegally caught fish in the Chesapeake Bay last month.
On Feb. 1, Natural Resources police confiscated nearly three tons of rockfish near Bloody Point Light, south of Kent Island in the Chesapeake Bay. The fish were in gill nets anchored to the bottom of the Bay – a technique that was banned in 1985. Gill nets that drift are legal during a season, Jan. 1 to Feb. 28, provided that the waterman who set them is within two miles of his net.
The next day, the police were back in the Bloody Point area, where they found three more anchored gill nets with about 8 tons of fish. The total for the two days topped 10 tons.
On Feb. 4, the department decided to close the fishery for the rest of the month. Officials worried the illegal catch would put them over the state’s quota for February. Maryland’s quota is set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. DNR fisheries director Tom O’Connell said the department had no choice but to shut down the fishery, with hopes that it might reopen for a day or two later in the month when the quota changed.
Watermen lobbied the department to reopen the fishery while also condemning the poaching. The Maryland Watermen’s Association was among the organizations that contributed to a reward, now topping $30,000, for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the poachers. But recreational groups, including the Coastal Conservation Association, argued it should stay closed. That group has been trying for years to have striped bass classified as a “game fish” that would be off-limits to commercial harvest.
Meanwhile, DNR police continued to patrol the Bay. On Feb. 11, they found more illegally anchored gill nets off Kent Island containing more than 2 tons of fish. DNR police told The Baltimore Sun’s Candus Thomson they believe the net had been set after the fishery closed. But subsequent sweeps did not turn up more nets, and the department figured it had about 200,000 fish left in the quota – enough to open the season for the last Friday and Monday of February.
“It was a difficult decision because we ultimately needed to have enough assurance that the quota for February was not going to be exceeded,” O’Connell said. “We took the decision seriously because we share the management responsibility with the rest of the coast.”
DNR Secretary John Griffin said he “could not justify penalizing the honest watermen, who depend on this fishery during the winter months.” But Griffin reiterated that the department would still aggressively patrol the area.
Penalties may be coming that are stronger than those imposed on poachers in the past. Maryland’s General Assembly has passed a bill including much stricter penalties for oyster poaching, and several have been introduced that target rockfish poaching. DNR police also have new technology, including night vision equipment that is enabling them to spot more illegal activity.