A $30,000 reward was issued for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the poachers, and last February officers armed with search warrants seized computers and files from a Tilghman Island home.

That information, coupled with tips from honest watermen concerned about losing their livelihood, should have led to arrests, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. But no arrests were made, to watermen's frustration, he said.

"I was hoping they'd make an arrest before the start of this season. That would have really helped the situation," Simns said. "Now I'm worried that the bad apples will get the idea that they won't be caught and they'll do it again."

But Sgt. Art Windemuth, NRP spokesman, said investigators continued to sift through the material and conduct interviews. He said that while the frustration is understandable, cases that lack "a smoking gun" require thousands of hours of manpower to prepare for court.

"We don't want to rush a case to prosecution that is not ready," Windemuth said. "The people and the resource demand our best effort."

Simns said he, too, is worried that another poaching incident might lead to another round of legislation this session.

"The guys understand it; they do," he said of his membership. "But there's not much we can do with somebody who has no regard for the law."

An online petition started last year calling on state officials to ban all nets in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries gathered more than 6,000 signatures nationwide. The Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association renewed the demand last month.

But Rafter, a former waterman, said the commercial industry was getting the message.

"Closing the season scared them," he said. "The state showed it had the ability to do it and the willingness to do it. Now watermen are policing watermen."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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