More than five miles of illegal nets have been seized in Chesapeake Bay in the past two weeks, apparently having been anchored there by fishermen trying to skirt the rules for catching striped bass, said Maryland Natural Resources Police.
No arrests have been made, but investigations are continuing.
Striped bass, or rockfish, were once so scarce in the bay that they were protected for five years by a fishing moratorium, which was eased in 1990. Though their numbers have rebounded, their catch is still strictly regulated to prevent overfishing.
Fishermen are allowed to use only drifting gill nets so that they can free any fish they are not allowed to catch under state regulations. Untended nets anchored to the bottom have been banned by the state since 1985, state officials say.
An anchored net, especially one left untended for days, "just keeps on fishing and killing," said fisheries scientist William Goldsborough of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Twenty-two anchored nets, each from 300 yards to 500 yards long, have been found at locations from Baltimore County to Calvert County during the past two weeks, police said. The commercial rockfish season began Jan. 4 and ends Feb. 26.
Acting on a tip, marine police seized seven nets off Cove Point Jan. 25, according to Lt. Tammy Broll in the Natural Resources Police Eastern Shore office in Hillsboro. Police staked out the nets but pulled them after three days because no one was spotted checking them.
Eight nets were pulled near Kent Island on Jan. 29, she said. Five nets were found southwest of Poole's Island on Feb. 4, and two east of North Point on Sunday.
Police found the first net in Baltimore County waters by chance, then found the others after searching for more, said Sgt. Ronald Dring, who is in the upper bay Natural Resources Police office in Gwynnbrook.
"I've been here for 14 years, and I can't remember any seizure of this great a number of illegally set gill nets," said Lieutenant Broll.
She said police suspected that fishermen were setting the nets and leaving them overnight to skirt the rules that allow netting of rockfish only from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. Police could not say how many fish were in the nets.
W. Peter Jensen, state fisheries director, said he did not think the net seizures indicated any increase in fishing violations this year.
More than 600 watermen declared their intent to fish for rockfish with drifted gill nets this winter. Most view the illegal netters as unfair competitors and fear such violations could lead to further restrictions on commercial fishing in the bay, Mr. Jensen said.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said some fishermen may be unaware that anchored nets have been banned while some may be trying to skirt the rules. But he said that most watermen abide by and even support the fishing restrictions.