OFF KENT ISLAND ——Officers have returned to the scene of the crime, where last year they pulled up miles of illegal nets filled with 12.6 tons of striped bass from the frigid waters off Kent Island.
This year they are armed with new weapons: side-scan sonar to detect underwater nets, new laws passed by the General Assembly that expand their authority and public sentiment that has demanded a halt to poaching of the state's signature fish.
The commercial season began Tuesday and will continue through February. Last year, the Department of Natural Resources closed the season three weeks early while biologists assessed the potential damage caused by poaching.
The threat of closing still hangs in the air.
"If we find more nets, the possibility of closing the fishery is very real," said Tom O'Connell, the DNR's Fisheries Service director. "The General Assembly will be watching this season very closely and will not stand by and let it happen again."
No one was arrested last year, and just the thought of poachers striking once more has made honest watermen nervous.
It's not that illegal nets were new last year. In 2010, for example, officers hauled in nearly five miles of nets.
"The difference is we never found nets that full of fish," Rafter said. "Somebody knew what they were doing. It was our first time finding nets like that, but it wasn't their first time putting them there."
On Wednesday morning, Rafter and Officer James Seward nosed their patrol boat, NRP 139, away from the department's dock on Kent Island and pushed through a layer of slush before reaching the Chesapeake Bay.
Sub-freezing temperatures did not deter watermen hoping to reach their daily 1,200-pound quota. Low-slung workboats bobbed in the water as crewmen strained to haul in their nets and sort fish.
The two officers began their rounds, boarding boats to check documents and ensure that nets carried the watermen's license number and were of legal size. They inspected the catch, looking for over- or undersized fish.
This season, a new tool — Pocket Cop — has been added to their arsenal. The smartphone application allows officers to look for outstanding warrants, check a waterman's license and make sure the tags that must be attached to each fish before it is sold were issued to the waterman using them.
As they motored to the next boat, the officers looked at the sonar screen for signs of a thin white line announcing the presence of an illegally submerged net anchored to the bay bottom.
Sonar is replacing a decidedly low-tech tool: the grappling hook. Officers used to pull the hook behind their boats, hoping to snag an illegal net. The work was likened to looking for a needle in a haystack.
"The sonar shows us where to look," Rafter said. "Then we can use the hook to pull the nets up. It would have been fantastic last year."
By June 1, the DNR hopes to institute a system called "Hail In/Hail Out," requiring watermen to call the agency before leaving the dock if they want to check in their catches at the end of the day.
In addition, officers and fisheries biologists have been authorized to conduct surprise audits of the check stations, O'Connell said.
The discovery of illegal nets generated headlines along the East Coast and raised questions among regional fisheries managers about Maryland's ability to manage striped bass, also known as rockfish.
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."