Maryland watermen banned for life following rockfish poaching convictions

Maryland waterman convicted of poaching rockfish from Chesapeake get lifetime ban.

Two Eastern Shore watermen convicted last year of a large poaching scheme have received lifetime bans from the striped bass fishery by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

State officials said they were not aware of a lifetime ban being imposed in the striped bass fishery before this case.

Michael D. Hayden Jr. and William J. Lednum, both of Tilghman Island, pleaded guilty to running an operation between 2007 and 2011 that took tens of thousands of pounds of striped bass, also called rockfish, in illegal, anchored nets off Kent Island in the Chesapeake Bay before the season had officially opened.

The take was so large that the Department of Natural Resources had to temporarily shut down the fishery.

The men also have been suspended from all commercial fishing activity for the next year, followed by a four-year probationary period. The fish allocated to their permits will be distributed to other fishers.

"The department has acted to protect the species as well as the interests of those who rely on the striped bass fishery for their livelihood," Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton said in a statement. "This action, though rare, was taken only after all the evidence was fully considered and after the individuals admitted fault. We hope this sends a strong signal to poachers that the state is serious about protecting the fishery."

The department decided to impose the lifetime bans after reviewing the federal case in which Hayden and Lednum pleaded guilty, said Sarah Widman, division manager of legislative and regulatory review in the fishing division.

The two watermen had several meetings with the department before the permit revocation decision was handed down from the secretary's office, Widman said.

Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the state's action was too heavy-handed. He compared the ban to a "death sentence" for men who make a living on the water.

"What they did was wrong," he said. "There should be a substantial penalty, but they've already gone to prison, and I don't think they should take away their permits forever. I think they should be able to rehabilitate."

Brown said state officials could have required a boat-tracking device for the two watermen. Lednum previously volunteered for a tracking program just before he left for prison. It required him to check in with officials as he left to fish and upon return.

Both watermen were sentenced in February 2015 to serve time at Fort Dix federal prison in New Jersey for the poaching crimes.

Michael D. Hayden was sentenced to 18 months in prison followed by six months of home detention. Lednum was sentenced to one year and one day, followed by six months of home detention.

Neither could be reached to comment.

At his sentencing last year, Hayden said he didn't plan to return to the rockfish industry.

"I got greedy when I was fishing," Hayden told U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett. "I would take it back if I could."

Lednum was Tilghman Island's fire chief and had planned to return to rockfish industry.

Both men had fished for a living and had been convicted of violating natural resource laws multiple times in previous years.

Bill Goldsborough, fisheries director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said Maryland officials must send "the right message" as they try to deter egregious fishery violations.

"Effective enforcement is [an] essential component of resource management," he said. "With this one, there was a pattern over several years, and they disadvantaged other honest watermen. These are the kinds of violations where we have to send a message."

crentz@baltsun.com

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