One officer.

That's what folks representing recreational anglers, charter boat captains and watermen all begged for Tuesday night from the head of Natural Resources Police.

After years of watching outlaws of all persuasions steal fish and oysters from Maryland waterways only to see overworked prosecutors and distracted judges set them free (the bad guys, not the sea critters), members of the Task Force on Fisheries Management pleaded for help.

"If you can't enforce the laws that protect natural resources, you can't manage the resource," said Brian Keehn, a charter boat captain. "We're losing the battle."

One officer in the right place can make a difference, said watermen's representative Russell Dize, noting the work of NRP Officer Roy Rafter, who stepped in to halt illegal oyster dredging off Tilghman Island "and closed it down in three days."

"As a lifelong waterman, I can tell you that nothing beats an NRP man patrolling an area," Dize said. "The right officer can stop it."

Fed-up task force members asked Col. George Johnson to shake things up, starting with a show of force at a popular Chesapeake Bay fishing spot near the LNG docks in Calvert County, where hundreds of boats congregate.

Johnson and Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin promised to do what they could, noting that Fisheries Service biologists have begun giving officers lists of hot spots. The two men promised to recruit other state officials to the cause, especially District Court judges and county prosecutors.

(Paging Attorney General Doug Gansler. Please pick up the white courtesy phone. This is right up your alley, dude.)

It won't be easy, though.

NRP lost 31 positions last fall, when the state slashed budgets to deal with the economic downturn. In January, it added 11 officers from other law enforcement agencies and has an academy class of 18 that will graduate this fall. NRP now has a staff of 245, a shade below authorized strength. But Johnson acknowledged that with retirements and resignations, full staffing is "a moving target."

Griffin warned that with the continuing economic woes and falling revenue, "we'll be lucky to hold on to what we have."

But for the time being, federal money for port security projects will allow NRP to buy 10 to 15 new boats. A total of $100,000 generated from the doubling of fishing license fees - that would be Senate Bill 1012 to some of you - will cover overtime for officers and might be used to bring back retired NRP officers to help patrol problem areas.

NRP has been involved in some high-profile cases recently, starting with the largest striped bass bust in Chesapeake Bay history, which is still working its way through the federal courts.

In February, serial poacher Joey Janda of Wittman got 90 days in jail and had his commercial license yanked for three years for harvesting undersized oysters, an outcome that pleased recreational anglers and watermen alike.

Last week, William Christopher Bradley of St. Michaels and Daniel Wesley Andrews of Wittman were fined a total of $7,047 in Talbot District Court after being found guilty of multiple counts of poaching and cutting open watermen's nets and helping themselves to the catches.

Bradley and Andrews, both 21, were caught twice by officers. In March, they were charged by NRP with possession and sale of undersized fish and fishing without a commercial license.

State's Attorney Scott Patterson did not pursue those cases in favor of charges filed April 9, when officers caught Bradley and Andrews with 8,400 undersized white perch, five bushels of white perch averaging more than 8 inches in length and four boxes of drift gill nets - a mighty unusual possession for two people who are not watermen.

Counties handle natural resources cases differently, DNR's Gina Hunt explained.

"Certain counties dedicate a day to natural resources cases so that the judge doesn't hear a rape, a murder, then a striped bass [case]," she said. "Obviously it's not going to get the same weight."

Anne Arundel State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee is talking to DNR and the court system about a pilot program that would dedicate a prosecutor to natural resources cases and scheduling trials on the same date, Johnson said.

"We need people who know the laws and can communicate them effectively," he said.

There are two additional bright spots.

First, District Court Chief Judge Ben Clyburn is an avid angler, and his office is right across the street from DNR headquarters.

Perhaps more importantly, the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Foundation is sponsoring a law enforcement summit in Annapolis this fall to bring attention to natural resources law enforcement with an eye toward next year's General Assembly session.

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