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Holding the line on poaching

With Baltimore in the midst of Restaurant Week, there are probably many happily dining on rockfish these days, and rightly so. Rockfish (more commonly known as striped bass) represent one of the Chesapeake Bay's most treasured bounties, both a worthy challenge to anglers and a delight on the dinner plate.

But if there is a lingering bitterness surrounding the catch of the day, it is the still-fresh memory of last winter's poaching incidents. Natural Resources Police hauled in an estimated 26,000 pounds of rockfish caught illegally in unattended gill nets. Poaching in any fishery is not unknown, but that was an amount large enough to enrage the public and raise questions about whether the commercial fishery has been adequately managed.

In less than two weeks, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources will formally propose regulations to curb such abuse. Exactly what those new rules will entail is not yet known, but preliminary recommendations are encouraging.

Crucial to these management proposals released last month by the DNR are at least three strategies that would likely address the problem. They are to require all gill nets to be permanently marked with the owner's fishing license number, to require fishermen to notify the DNR when they are fishing (and where they are), and to conduct random audits of check stations where watermen bring in and sell their catch.

As one might expect, watermen have greeted the proposals with the same enthusiasm with which a blue crab might embrace a heavy coat of Old Bay seasoning and a steaming hot pot. They have argued that the rules are burdensome, expensive, intrusive and unnecessary.

Perhaps most controversial of all is what DNR calls the "hail-in/hail-out" notification, which will require fishermen to stay in frequent contact with authorities and reveal such information as where they fished, how long they were out, where they are selling their catch and how many fish they caught.

Such frequent and detailed communications would seem to run counter to the fiercely independent (not to mention tight-lipped) nature of the men and women who work on the water, but it could prove one of the most effective strategies under review. Assuming the agency can develop an adequate communications system (cell phone service is admittedly spotty in some locations on the bay, and ship-to-shore radio would be laborious), the information should not only assist law enforcement but provide valuable data for fishery management.

Rockfish are not an endangered species. Watermen harvested nearly 2 million pounds of them last year and will likely do so again this year, whether or not the poaching continues. But spawning stocks are down slightly, as is the number of juveniles, so there are legitimate long-term concerns about a species whose numbers fell dangerously low by the mid-1980s.

Should rockfish fishermen want to blame the proposed regulations on anyone, let it be on themselves. To this day, no charges have been filed in this year's poaching incidents. If Maryland watermen are aware of the perpetrators living in their communities, they haven't been tripping over themselves to bring them to justice.

If Maryland is going to continue to have a commercial catch of rockfish — and provide for all those restaurants and seafood markets across the state — managers need to have confidence that they know how many are being caught. One of the more troubling questions to arise from the poaching is whether this was truly an isolated series of incidents or whether police simply uncovered a previously undetected but common practice.

The striped bass is a common resource shared not only with all the citizens of Maryland but, as the Chesapeake Bay serves as a spawning ground and nursery for the anadromous fish, with much of the Atlantic Coast. The population must be managed wisely, and those who have been given the privilege of harvesting the fish in large number must be held accountable.

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