State proposes new policies to prevent rockfish poaching

State fisheries officials outlined a sweeping plan they hope to implement by December to curb commercial striped bass poaching in the Chesapeake Bay. The announcement Wednesday night came just four months after miles of illegal nets filled with 13 tons of fish were discovered by police in the waters off Kent Island.

Among other things, the proposal would require real-time reporting by phone and electronically of when commercial boats leave the dock and return, and how many striped bass they caught along with the sequential numbers on the tags that watermen must attach to each fish and a positive identification system for nets.

It also provides for a random, two-day audit of the 30 check stations by a Natural Resources Police officer and Fisheries Service biologist to ensure that the number of fish caught match the number of fish the check stations are reporting to DNR. And, the plan would increase penalties and fines for "knowingly egregious or repeat offenses."

The proposal by the Department of Natural Resources, which combines a series of new monitoring and enforcement measures, is on a fast track to implementation before the start of the gill net season Dec. 1.

The discovery of the illegally netted fish throughout February set off a protest from recreational groups and conservationists, prompted creation of a $30,000 reward and generated an online petition drive to ban all nets in the bay. The petition collected thousands of signatures from across the country. The incident prompted DNR to close the commercial striped bass season for two weeks while officials scrambled to assess the scope of the poaching.

"It would be difficult to say there isn't a problem," Fisheries Service Director Tom O'Connell told a gathering of watermen and commercial fishing leaders at a meeting in Annapolis. "We feel confident that these ideas, if implemented, will allow the industry to withstand any criticism ... and we will stand with you."

Mike Luisi, a Fisheries Service official, said a review of the check station system, in which volunteers — many of them fish wholesalers or fish markets — log in catches and send the results to DNR, shows many inconsistencies. The problem was highlighted during an eight-year investigation of a striped bass black market on the Potomac River that involved watermen, check stations and fish dealers in an operation worth millions of dollars.

Federal and state officers involved in the sting recently briefed DNR officials on techniques that were used and are still being used to scam the system.

"We've learned things that are happening that make us uneasy and make us uncertain," Luisi said.

He noted that the amount the state collects each year in commercial permit and license fees, about $451,000, does not cover the management and enforcement expenses, estimated to be $1.2 million. He suggested that fees and taxes would have to be raised to cover the difference.

But the watermen, who acknowledged the poaching problems and the public relations black eye it is giving them, balked at the idea of paying more.

"The honest waterman should not have to pay for this," said Gibby Dean, president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association. "The guys can't stand it anymore."

Bob Evans, an Anne Arundel County waterman, said poachers are exploiting the fact that Natural Resources Police staffing is at a record low.

"In the 1990s, we got checked every day. You didn't screw up because you were going to get a ticket," he said. "All of the sudden, there's no marine police. ... These guys are going to do their jobs. You just have to give them the money to do it."

The watermen also found fault with the proposed "Hail In/Hail Out" system that would require them to call an automated phone number every time they left the dock to fish and call again as they were returning to say where they would be checking their fish and the approximate size of their catch. Poor cellphone service in the lower bay and other remote areas would make the system unreliable, they said.

Fisheries Service officials will brief recreational and commercial fishing advisory commissions next week with an eye toward having a completed proposal available for online comment on Aug. 17.

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