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Rockfish poaching: It's more than just a few fish

It's just fish.

That, according to reporting by The Sun's Catherine Rentz, is the attitude of many on Tilghman Island about the jail sentences handed down to some of those involved in a massive 2011 poaching operation. Everybody's doing it, the local thinking goes, so what's the big deal?

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Given the historic distrust many Maryland watermen have displayed toward government regulation of their livelihood — and in particular, given the insular nature of Tilghman Island — the willingness of so many to forgive and even laud those whose actions literally and directly took money out of their neighbors' pockets is not so surprising. But it is nonetheless remarkably self-destructive.

As Ms. Rentz reported, William J. "Billy" Lednum recently reported to federal prison to serve his year-and-a-day sentence stemming from a single poaching incident so huge that it prompted regulators to cut Maryland watermen's 2011 rockfish quotas by 5 percent. His co-conspirator, Michael D. Hayden Jr., is due to be sentenced this week. Their two helpers, Kent Sadler and Lawrence "Danny" Murphy, have both also received stiff sentences — fines and restitution plus 30 days in jail for Mr. Sadler, probation for Mr. Murphy.

What they did was to set illegal anchor nets in the bay out of season — so many nets and so early that they were filled with more than 10 tons of rockfish when National Resources Police began pulling them up on the first day of the February 2011 season. It took authorities four boats, including a 73-foot icebreaker, to haul all of it away. Officials closed the February gill net season after only eight days and reopened it for just two days at the end of the month. In all, regulators found about 13 tons of poached fish that month, a haul so egregious that it prompted tough new regulations on commercial fishing, including requirements that boats report when they leave and return to dock, increased audits and stiffer penalties for violations.

Cracking down on poaching isn't some kind of tree-hugger overreaction, nor do regulators place restrictions on the commercial and recreational catch of rockfish and other seafood for the sake of officiousness. The recalcitrant Tilghman Island watermen and their supporters are a living, breathing display of what economists call "the tragedy of the commons" — the principle that individuals acting in their own self interest will fail to properly manage a shared resource, like a fishery, and will eventually deplete it. When it comes to Chesapeake Bay rockfish, that's not just a theoretical concern.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the commercial rockfish harvest in Maryland's portion of the bay routinely topped 3 million, 4 million and even 5 million pounds a year. Then the catch started to precipitously decline, and the state instituted a commercial and recreational rockfish ban from 1984-1990, which was then followed by other East Coast states. Fish stocks recovered during that time, but the population is still under tremendous pressure as demand for the delicacy — and its price — increase.

The population of Atlantic rockfish (or striped bass, as it is also known) is nowhere near as low as it was in the years leading up to the moratorium, but it is heading in the wrong direction. Rockfish stocks have been on the decline since hitting a high a decade ago, and regulators are striving to reverse the trend. Last fall, amid warnings that the population of spawning female rockfish was a year or two away from an unsustainable level, the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission decided to reduce the maximum allowable rockfish catch by 25 percent along the Atlantic coast and 20.5 percent in the Chesapeake.

Poaching represents a real threat to efforts to understand the dynamics of the rockfish population and to set appropriate and sustainable levels for its harvest. Unless scientists know with some accuracy how many fish are being taken, they cannot fully understand how the population responds to management. Thus, the more fishermen evade the catch limits, the less successful efforts to allow the rockfish population to restore itself will be, and the stricter regulations will become.

Watermen may complain that government regulators are trying to stamp out their way of life, but it's actually people like Messrs. Lednum, Hayden, Sadler and Murphy — and those who encourage and abet them — who are doing that. Tilghman Islanders may find it shocking that people are going to jail over some fish, but it's quite clear that nothing else has gotten their attention. Messrs. Lednum and Hayden had been fined more than 20 times between them, and their poaching only got bolder. Unfortunately, from the sound of things, the message still isn't getting through. We certainly hope it does before poachers force the bay's striped bass fishery to shut down again.

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