On Tilghman Island, law-breaking watermen defended

On Tilghman Island, law-breaking watermen are defended.

On a midwinter afternoon, William "Billy" J. Lednum steered the Kristin Marie into the Knapps Narrows, a channel that separates Tilghman Island from the rest of the Eastern Shore. It was 35 degrees and gusty, but Lednum, a "waterman cowboy" who has won dozens of boat-docking trophies, whipped the stern around and flawlessly backed into his slip. After tying his boat to the dock, he unloaded 125 silver-scaled rockfish, weighing a combined 699 pounds.

This was the 42-year-old waterman's last trip before heading to prison — and perhaps the last rockfish haul of his life. Lednum, known around Tilghman Island as "Billy," is now Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate No. 57529-037 at Fort Dix, N.J.

"Days like today I would have stayed home," he said, referring to the numbing cold and wind that penetrated his red sweatshirt. "But I moved things up so I could get things done."

On insular Tilghman — a 2.7-square-mile island with fewer than 800 residents — many are outraged by Lednum's fall. Not because of his crime: poaching rockfish in violation of state and federal law.

They are upset that this fourth-generation islander and chief of the volunteer fire department will be serving a year and a day behind bars for pursuing his livelihood. Neighboring families can't recall anybody ever going to prison "just for catching a fish." Curiously, not even watermen who had their 2011 quotas slashed as a result of the poaching said they were upset with him — or the three others convicted last year in the poaching scheme.

The Tilghman Island Volunteer Fire Company recently decided that Lednum should continue as chief while he's in prison. Two marinas have offered to dock the Kristin Marie for free. A waterman friend will be mowing his lawn while he's gone.

"I don't know what the state of Maryland is trying to do," said Johnny Haddaway, 78, a third-generation waterman whose house sits in the shadow of the island's drawbridge. "They are trying to get rid of watermen is what they are trying to do."

Patricia McGlannan, co-owner of the Tilghman Island Country Store, notes that Lednum and the other men convicted in the poaching scheme "are the very same people who take care of the community and do all the volunteering. So there is your great irony. ... I'm not for illegal fishing, but you meet the guy and you say, 'Damn, it's just fish.'"

A lot of fish. As the February 2011 season opened, Maryland's Natural Resources Police discovered miles of illegal "ghost nets" hidden beneath the surface and packed with more than 10 tons of rockfish — a Chesapeake Bay delicacy popular in restaurants. Although police had recovered illegally anchored and unattended nets for years, this marked the most egregious violation to date. Maryland temporarily shut down the rockfish season and reduced quotas for all watermen. The General Assembly, meanwhile, overhauled fishery enforcement by imposing tougher penalties for poachers.

A squabble between Natural Resources Police and the watermen on Lednum's boat near those ghost nets marked the beginning of serious trouble for Lednum and his best friend and fishing partner, Michael D. Hayden Jr., 43, also of Tilghman.

By August 2014, Lednum and Hayden had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and to violate a federal law that protects fish resources. The federal judge handling the cases told Lednum that a prison sentence would send a message to others; he began serving his sentence early this month. Hayden, who faces additional obstruction-of-justice allegations, is scheduled to be sentenced Friday. The two men are also responsible for nearly $500,000 in restitution.

Helper Kent Sadler, 31, of Tilghman, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the federal fishing law. Helper Lawrence "Danny" Murphy, 38, of neighboring St. Michaels, pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Sadler has begun his 30-day sentence, which he is serving on weekends at a local jail. Murphy is on probation. Both have hefty fines and restitution to pay.

In country stores and on the docks, the poaching case is the talk of Tilghman Island, where the tight-knit community of watermen has long butted heads with authority. Says Lednum, "I've got support from all over, even across to the Western Shore. I can't ask for no better."

Ugly scene at the nets

At 3 a.m. Feb. 1, 2011, the first day of the season for rockfish — also known as striped bass — Lednum, Hayden and their two helpers headed north from Knapps Narrows toward Bloody Point Lighthouse aboard the Kristin Marie. It was 30 degrees, and a dense fog and freezing drizzle blanketed the bay.

As the watermen approached their nets — which had been set well before the season opened and in a way outlawed in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake Bay — they noticed an unlit boat waiting. It was the Natural Resources Police.

Hayden took over the controls from Lednum and chargedafter the boat as the others retreated to the cabin. The men, who had known Hayden for years, realized there was nothing they could do to calm him. Interfering would only make things worse.

Hayden "began shouting general indignities" at the police officers, according to court records. Another witness said he made an obscene gesture.

Eventually, Lednum took control of the boat. "If Billy hadn't grabbed the wheel from Mike, I think Mike would have rammed that NRP boat," Murphy told a federal official, according to court records.

After that confrontation, the Natural Resources Police knew that no watermen would claim the nets. So officers began pulling them up.

"It was a whole lot more than we ever thought," Roy Rafter of the Natural Resources Police said to an agency video camera as he began pulling the nets. The haul was so large it weighed down his patrol boat. "The engines started to go underwater. It's more than I've ever seen on a bust like this."

Rafter began reeling the net into his 25-foot patrol boat. But as the boat filled with fish, he could tell there was still more net to pull. He called for help. Another patrol boat filled up. Then another. The department sent the 73-foot icebreaker J.C. Widener. After two days, four boats were filled with 20,000 pounds of fish.

Tony Friedrich of Maryland's Coastal Conservation Association, a sport fishermen's group, arrived early the next morning to take photos and video of the fish. He found a somber scene, with officers "quiet and heads hanging down."

Friedrich recalled, "It looked like a mass grave of decaying fish and smelled like if you stuck your head in a Dumpster full of dead stuff."

Clampdown on poaching

Maryland regulators and legislators have taken many steps to increase and protect the number of rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay — an important breeding ground. From 70 percent to 90 percent of the striped bass along the Atlantic coast originate in the bay, according to the Department of Natural Resources. And the females, which prefer to spawn in Maryland freshwater tributaries such as the Potomac, the Chester and the Choptank rivers, swim into the bay each spring to lay eggs.

In 1985, the state banned the catching of rockfish after the population plummeted from years of overfishing and pollution. When the state reopened the season in 1990, it forbade the use of anchored gill nets because they were too efficient at catching fish and too difficult to monitor, because they can be invisible to the eye. That was particularly true around Bloody Point, where the waters were much deeper than the bay's average of 21 feet and were well suited for hiding illegally set anchor nets.

Legal "drift" gill nets are similar in shape, but because watermen attend the nets as they move with the current, there is less chance that the catch will exceed quotas.

At the time of the Bloody Point incident, each waterman could catch only 300 pounds per day.

The nets pulled up by Rafter and his colleagues in early February 2011 equated to the daily quotas of 66 watermen.

Friedrich distributed his pictures and video to local news stations and formed a team to lobby the state legislature for tougher laws against poachers.

After state officials assessed the damage, they suspended the season for nearly three weeks and eventually cut the overall quota for all watermen by 5 percent. Officials said it was the only time that a single poaching event had led to such restrictions.

Within weeks, Maryland legislators passed an anti-poaching bill that would give regulators more enforcement tools to suspend or revoke licenses for repeat offenders. Since then, state records show there have been 17 license revocations.

Even as state officials toughened anti-poaching measures, no one knew who had set the illegal nets off Bloody Point.

Soon, authorities began to focus on Lednum and Hayden, who had had previous run-ins withenforcement agents. Hayden had 13 offenses since 1995, including several citations for illegally set gill nets; his average fine was $149, the equivalent of the wholesale price of about 10 average-sized rockfish. Lednum had eight offenses since 1995 with an average fine of $80.

Based partly on what happened off Bloody Point, authorities executed several search warrants at check-in stations where Hayden and Lednum had reported their catch, according to court documents. They also searched the watermen's residences, boats and vehicles. The warrants yielded a mass of cellphone records, GPS information and sales records. Authorities also took nets, weights and molds for making weights — the molds found in Lednum's garage matched the weights in the nets seized by officers off Bloody Point, according to court documents.

Investigators analyzed the documents, piecing together elements of the conspiracy that formed the basis of the federal charges. They found that Lednum and Hayden falsified records, selling much more than their legal quota to fish markets in New York and other states from at least 2007 to 2011. For example, in January 2009, they "checked in" 3,500 pounds of rockfish but sold more than 12,000 pounds to a New York market, according to court documents.

Lednum and Hayden admitted to illegally selling a total of 185,925 pounds of rockfish worth nearly $500,000, court records show. They deny that all of that catch was illegal, saying they made the admission in a plea deal to avoid the risk of a long prison sentence.

'Everybody was doing it'

Around Tilghman Island, many people believe the investigation and prosecution of Lednum and Hayden were excessive.

Ronnie Reiss, 32, known locally as "Reissy Cup," lives about a mile north of the island's drawbridge. On a recent day, while repairing a pair of oyster hand tongs outside near a couple of dead geese, Reiss did not hesitate to share his thoughts about Lednum's and Hayden's anchor netting.

"What they were doing, there is nothing wrong with it!" Reiss said. "Every other state does it, why can't we?"

He occasionally helped Lednum and Hayden but was not on the boat the morning the nets were found. During the investigation, he said, authorities searched his house, as they did several others on the island, but he was not charged.

Across the bridge is the red-shingled Tilghman Country Grocery Store.

"There's other crime the government could focus on," said co-owner John McGlannan.

"We have a huge heroin problem now," added his wife, Patricia. They wish police would go after the drug thieves in town as aggressively as they did the watermen. Community Facebook pages, they say, have lit up with comments criticizing the government for hitting Lednum and the other watermen with penalties that equal "drug kingpin" sentences.

The drawbridge and country store are community fixtures, but one business qualifies as an island icon: Harrison House. Ten years after the Civil War, the Harrisons began attracting steamboat vacationers from Baltimore looking to escape heat and humidity. Over the years, the inn has hosted Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney, to name a few.

Capt. Levin "Buddy" Harrison III, owner of the Harrison House until he died in October, was the longtime patriarch of the inn — and the island. He provided jobs and lodging for dozens of local residents, including several who were down on their luck. His eccentricity was on display in a 2007 YouTube video — "You better get on the Buddy Plan" — where he's wearing a gold necklace, bracelets and necklaces and singing between bikini-clad women on his fishing boat.

But he also had numerous regulatory problems, including citations for exceeding catch limits and for catching undersize rockfish. In 2006, a jury convicted him of goose poaching, and he lost his guide license.

His son Capt. Levin "Bud" Harrison IV, wrote laudatory letters about Hayden and Lednum to the judge handling their case. Asked to discuss the case, he said. "I've known both of them all my life. Let's leave it at that."

Some watermen said the prosecution of Lednum and Hayden masked a larger problem.

"They weren't the only ones catching fish with an [illegal] net," said Haddaway, who had just come in from oystering and was sitting in an enclosed porch decorated with black-and-white pictures of the old Tilghman Haddaways, descendants of those who fought in the Civil War. "They were all doing it all along the bay."

Haddaway said he also had anchor nets out in the water on the day that Natural Resources Police made their discovery off Bloody Point.

Hayden and Lednum say 10 to 12 other boats had unattended nets in the area before the 2011 season opened. Hayden said that's why residents were not upset with them: "Everybody was doing it! Why would you argue if everybody is doing it?"

Even now, as he awaits sentencing, Hayden defends the use of anchor nets, pointing out that Maryland is considering making them legal in its part of the bay — as they already are on the Virginia side, and in Maryland's portion of the Potomac River and Atlantic Ocean. Mike Luisi, director of the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Estuarine and Marine Division, confirmed that the change is under consideration.

Hayden and other Tilghman watermen insist that anchor nets are needed to catch fish as they swim toward the shore and up the rivers, where drift netting is more difficult.

"You can't drift net in shallow water because you tear all your gear up," Hayden said, adding that anchor nets enable watermen to avoid harsh weather and the loss of valuable equipment to underwater obstructions.

Not all Tilghman watermen break the law or detest enforcement, said Rafter, the Natural Resources Police corporal. Watermen have become his primary source of tips, he said, noting that while stationed in Tilghman between 2010 and 2014 he received anonymous texts thanking him for his enforcement.

Still, the competitive business of fishing can put pressure on law-abiding watermen, he said.

"Once one cheats, the others feel like they have little choice but to do the same thing."

crentz@baltsun.com

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