Poached fish, crab stew

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland has had to stomach some unusually bad seafood-related behavior lately. Two incidents raise questions about how well the state is protecting some of its most prized Chesapeake Bay natural resources.

First, it appears last year's crab harvest has not been reported honestly by watermen. And, in the even more troubling event, federal investigators have uncovered a large-scale poaching ring that has been plundering the bay's striped bass population for years.

The problem with the crab harvest is a real curiosity. In reviewing statistical results for 2008, Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials discovered evidence that some watermen overstated their catch in order to either lessen future restrictions or allow part-timers to establish a sufficient catch history to maintain access to the fishery. Or perhaps some landings were understated in the past to avoid paying income taxes.

While the decline of the bay's overall crab population of recent years is unmistakable, this statistical anomaly was unexpected. Yet the evidence of widespread lying, either in years past or now, is compelling. For 18 years, winter dredge surveys have accurately predicted crab harvests. More recently, summer surveys of crab pots have been reliable, too. Last year, both suggested far fewer crabs would be caught.

The incident underscores the need for a quota-based system to regulate crab harvests. If watermen are given a specific limit, there's no more guesswork in the regulatory process and crabs are better protected. Watermen benefit, too, since it would allow them to bring in more of their catch when prices are highest.

The Washington-area striped bass poaching ring revealed by federal authorities last Friday after a four-year undercover operation is stunning in its scale and greed. Investigators say the operation earned as much as $7 million for its nine perpetrators, including the five watermen accused of illegally taking striped bass, also known as rockfish, from the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.

How could so much illegal seafood be bought and sold without DNR knowing about it? We look forward to learning more about that. At minimum, the episode is going to be used by the sport fishing industry to cast further doubts about the wisdom of a commercial harvest of striped bass in Maryland waters.

All watermen shouldn't be punished for the behavior of a few bad players, but too much is at stake to ignore. A moratorium may not be justified, but some tightening of industry rules is in order - even if that means consumers have to pay more for fresh fish at the market. Whether it's crabs or striped bass, the resource is not unlimited and needs to be managed responsibly.

From the Maryland-Virginia oyster wars to the days of outlaw gunners illegally harvesting waterfowl, watermen have long enjoyed a reputation as a rough and authority-averse bunch. But while such behavior may recall roguish 19th-century ways, it translates to criminal charges in the 21st.

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