Time to squeeze net on crowd thumbing noses at fishing, crabbing laws

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They are, of course, innocent until proven guilty.

But when you've been caught once with your hand in the cookie jar, it's hard to explain the Oreo crumbs on your chin when you get busted a second time.

William A. Beck, 39; David L. Haas, 46; and David L. Haas Jr., 26, all of Rock Hall, were arrested by Natural Resources Police officers and each charged with five violations of the regulations governing striped bass fishing with drift gill nets.

When officers cruised up to their boat, the watermen were in the process of hauling in one of their nets. Officers seized 305 pounds of striped bass, two gill nets and a mud anchor. The men are accused of stealing undersized fish, fishing at the wrong time and failing to mark their nets with plastic floats.

The arrests came Jan. 3, the first day of the netting season.

Now, honest mistakes happen. Boats drift where they're not supposed to be, anglers misread maps and regulations, a hunter strays onto private property.

But the same offenses twice? From professionals in their field? Things that make you go, "Hmmm."

Back in February 2001, these three guys along with eight other watermen were nailed as they tied up to the dock at Long Cove on the Kent County side of the Chester River. Officers seized 3,950 pounds of striped bass in that raid.

All 11 men were charged with fishing violations. The Three Amigos were charged with setting unmarked nets, leaving nets unattended and fishing at the wrong time.

It's true that watermen often get singled out for blame, when in truth there are recreational anglers doing the same slimy thing.

Trying to make a living on the water, especially this time of the year, is darn near impossible. The fish aren't schooling up and the weather is hostile. But somehow, the honest ones get by.

The bad actors have decided that breaking the law and paying fines on the rare occasions they get caught are just part of doing business. They even pay watchers to keep an eye on the comings and goings of the understaffed fish cops.

NRP officers do what they can. Sgt. Nick Powell said the latest operation involved nine officers, including those stationed in Baltimore, Kent Narrows and Cecil County.

It happened on a holiday weekend, so the understaffed NRP was stretched as thin as Calista Flockhart to get the job done.

The dishonest ones learn more tricks each time they get busted.

"They're adapting. They're using GPS and grappling hooks to find their nets. The jungle drums are already beating on this one," said Powell.

While conducting their investigation, officers hauled in nine other illegally set gill nets, which means the amigos had company. At $300 to $500 a pop for nets, that means someone is out a lot of money at the start of the season.

It's not enough.

Last year, a group of recreational and commercial fishermen helped revise the penalties for stealing fish and crabs to crack down on chronic offenders.

Now, the legislature should authorize DNR to seize boats, equipment, cars used to transport stolen fish - anything that isn't nailed down - belonging to the perpetual poachers.

And honest folks need to drop a dime when they see something, well, fishy.

"Sometimes the ones doing right get tired of the ones doing wrong and they'll talk," said Powell. "We listen to what's being said."

The 24-hour poacher hot line is 1-800-635-6124.

What's the hurry?

When you're a kid, grownups tell you not to put things up your nose. No foreign coins. No rhinestone buttons. No pencil erasers.

That's good advice.

So why won't the Ehrlich administration take that advice and forget about putting Asian oysters in the Chesapeake Bay for now.

Maybe dumping millions of little water-cleaning bivalves in the bay is a terrific idea. But maybe it's like putting foreign coins up the schnoz. You know, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Didn't we learn anything from the northern snakehead episode? Are we longing for the days when Maryland was the center of the alien species universe.

I'm no fish biologist. Of course, neither is Pete Jensen, DNR's oyster point man.

Here are questions no one seems prepared to answer:

1. What's the rush? Once those little suckers are in there, they'll be as tough to evict.

2. How are we supposed to have faith in a slapped-together study that seems more like a last-minute undergraduate term paper than a true scientific review?

3. Why aren't any of the surrounding states embracing this Asian oyster like an old rich auntie? If those paragons of environmental virtue, Virginia and New Jersey, think it's a hasty decision, maybe it is.

4. If it is such a good idea, why did the Ehrlich administration invite Jensen, the man it had just forced out of DNR, to be Mr. Oyster?

5. Do they taste good? Supporters say they do, but a careful search of news stories and studies fails to establish the particulars of said taste test. If one of the goals is to give watermen something to harvest, shouldn't we let Rob Kasper judge whether these little buggers are salty and juicy or taste like rubberbands?

Answer those questions, and I'll take the eraser out of my nose.

Floundering

The fisheries service is having two meetings to discuss recreational fishery management options for the 2005 summer flounder season.

Maryland gets less than 3 percent of the East Coast's recreational quota - the smallest percentage of the 13 states. Right now, anglers may keep three fish over 16 inches. Under those restrictions, anglers last year caught just over half of the 122,000-fish quota set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Unlike public meetings in previous years, DNR will not be offering up for comment a menu of minimum lengths and creel limits to choose from. That's because the commission won't be meeting until Feb. 7 to approve or reject each state's regulatory framework.

DNR's Marty Gary says the state would like the commission to approve its proposal to set the quota on a three-year average so that Maryland wouldn't be penalized for exceeding its total in one year. If regulators like the plan, the state might be able to drop the minimum size to 15 1/2 inches and maintain the creel limit or raise it by one.

For Eastern Shore folks, the meeting is at 6 p.m. on Jan. 27 at the Ocean Pines branch of the Worcester County Public Library, 11107 Cathell Rd.

On this shore, the meeting is at 7 p.m. on Feb. 3 at DNR headquarters on Rowe Boulevard.

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