Justice on the bay

Anyone who has ever caught or dined on a striped bass knows that these silver and green beauties, also called rockfish, are treasures of the Chesapeake Bay.

So it was heartening to see that a band of crooks who were plundering this treasure by illegally catching and selling rockfish have been brought to justice. As reported recently by The Sun's Candus Thomson, this collection of bandit watermen and fish dealers was snared thanks to eight years of diligence by an interagency wildlife task force composed of federal, Maryland and Virginia wildlife agents. Their prosecution by the office of U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein and the subsequent convictions and stiff punishment — 19 men convicted, 15 prison sentences — handed down by federal Judge Peter Messitte deserve praise.

These were not minor offenses, like a charter boat captain stretching a borderline fish so its elongated body would meet legal lengths. Instead, this was an operation of deep complexity and stunning greed. The investigation apprehended watermen who caught striped bass out of season, exceeded their annual quotas and sold oversized fish, as well as wholesalers who knowingly bought the illegal fish and falsified records to hide the crimes. In all, members of the black market ring were found guilty of felony and misdemeanor charges of poaching 1.63 million pounds of striped bass with a fair market value of $6.54 million.

The excuse proffered by one of the convicted watermen, that he was acting out of desire to support his family, cloaks ignoble deeds with noble motives. The details of the deception — catching huge female fish out of season, making middle-of-the-night runs to fish wholesalers, lying in reports of the catch — show that these men had no regard for the law. Their crimes also hurt law-abiding watermen. One law breaker even hid fish caught before the start of season in underwater cages, then brought them to market on the first day of the legal season, an action that netted him a top price for his illegal fish and meant that the catches of legitimate watermen that came in later drew lower prices. Had they been allowed to continue, they might have contributed to a repeat of an earlier collapse of the Chesapeake rockfish population, which forced a total ban on their harvest for several years.

Undercover investigators behaved bravely, penetrating operations run by close-knit criminal families in Maryland and Virginia. But their investigation also uncovered holes in the wildlife enforcement system. While the convicted Virginia fisherman lost the right to fish for two years, Maryland did not have authority to issue a comparable ban on its offenders. That deficiency has been remedied for future offenders. Maryland authorities wisely are querying the task force on ways to improve the system of how commercial fishing licenses are sold and transferred. One of the convicted waterman had 22 licenses, including one held by a Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service employee.

The fishery of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries is a limited resource that needs to be managed responsibly. Watermen in Maryland and Virginia have long enjoyed a reputation as a rough and authority-averse bunch. But the restrictions on their activities are designed to ensure the health of the bay for generations — and, ultimately, to preserve commercial fishing as a way of life. The commendable work of the wildlife task force shows that these days, if watermen and wholesalers behave like rogues, they are going to serve hard time.

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