Don't let DNR off the hook: It's partly to blame in bass poaching

The Baltimore Sun

Sitting in a federal courtroom Thursday, listening to prosecutors outline the cases against five watermen who pleaded guilty to poaching striped bass to supply a black market, was like reviewing an indictment of slipshod work by Department of Natural Resources officials.

Some examples:

* Commercial check-in stations were allowed to be run by people who had records of fishing and crabbing violations.

* Watermen weren't required at the end of the season to turn in surplus tags used to mark their catches, which prevented anyone from checking tags against catch reports.

* Tags weren't marked with the year.

* Striped bass caught in stationary nets, called pound nets, were being tagged with hook-and-line tags. Since pound netters received 25 percent of the annual commercial allocation and hook-and-liners and gill netters received the rest, it's easy to see how the system could be gamed.

* Employees of the agency - even Fisheries Service and Natural Resources Police officers - were allowed to hold commercial licenses and striped bass permits.

Certainly the sloppiness of DNR officials' cutting corners is no excuse for the greed and lawlessness of the watermen and fish wholesalers who took millions of dollars worth of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River.

But a lot of the loopholes used by the guilty were knitted from 2003 to 2007, which matches the time period of the federal poaching investigation. And now DNR is scrambling to repair the damage.

"The rules changed five or six years ago. If you look at these arrests and look at the dates, this is when it started happening," says Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "They were trying to save money, and they took the lock off the door. Watermen looking for an edge can figure it out real quick if there's a way to make money off it."

During those four years, the lieutenant governor declared that watermen wouldn't have anything to worry about, Natural Resources Police changed superintendents three times, the number of officers shrank and a commercial waterman without a science background was named deputy fisheries director.

Now, sometimes Simns and I exchange heat-seeking missiles in lieu of Christmas cards. But in this case, it's important to note that before almost anyone was aware of the trouble brewing in Southern Maryland, Simns began making noise about hanky-panky going on with pound net and hook-and-line tags. Not in some private place, but at meetings of the Tidal Fish Advisory Commission.

"We could see what was happening," Simns says. "The department was trying to cut overhead. We said: 'Don't do it. You're going to open Pandora's box.' "

DNR Secretary John R. Griffin, who took over the agency in early 2007, has acknowledged problems. Last year, the agency tightened commercial striped bass rules and is in the process of doing it again.

But the damage to Maryland's reputation is done. It won't be easy to repair, especially with the state budget in tatters. There are just 45 officers patrolling the Chesapeake and its tributaries, and the aviation unit is being disbanded.

Simns noted that, too. "Here they are with not enough people, and they're eliminating the helicopters. That's the tool everyone is afraid of. They can be anywhere, watching anyone. That works."

Fixing flounder problem

We've overfished crabs, overfished oysters, overfished menhaden and overfished yellow perch. Did I leave anything out?

Oh, yes: Last year recreational anglers caught too many flounder, even though the season ended more than two months early to avoid exceeding the state quota. So this year, the state's quota is 61,000 fish - 32 percent less than last year.

Mike Luisi, a state fisheries manager, says Maryland was notified by the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey that it was 4,500 fish over the annual limit almost six weeks after the summer survey was taken.

"We immediately closed the season to avoid overage, but we were too late," he said. "Our target was 61,500 fish. We ended up taking about 90,000 fish."

To pay back the overage, fisheries managers will have to devise a plan that includes increasing minimum size, reducing creel limits and shortening the fishing season at the beginning or the end. A chart outlining a range of options is on the DNR Web site on the fisheries page: http://www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries.

In the past few years, the popularity of inshore spring fishing has held steady while offshore fall fishing has grown, so Luisi knows he faces a balancing act.

The public will be asked what combination of bad medicine it wants to swallow at a meeting at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Ocean Pines Library, 11107 Cathell Road, Berlin. If you can't make the meeting, send comments to Steve Doctor at sdoctor@dnr.state.md.us

After listening to ideas, fisheries folks will draft regulations with an eye toward enacting them by mid-April.

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