Natural Resources Police seized an illegal fishing net filled with nearly three tons of striped bass Tuesday morning off Bloody Point at the tip of Kent Island.
It is believed to be the largest single illegal netting of striped bass in a quarter of a century. The haul, with a market value of about $15,000, was so large that the 25-foot patrol boat had to radio the 73-foot buoy tender M/V J.C. Widener for help.
"My gosh, I did not expect this many fish," said Cpl. Roy Rafter, who spearheaded the operation that began Monday afternoon and continued overnight. "It's overwhelming."
Ten officers and Department of Natural Resources employees spent the afternoon at the Matapeake pier on Kent Island cutting fish out of netting and preparing them for sale. The fish averaged 27 inches and about 10 pounds, with some 40-inch fish mixed in.
The conservation community expressed anger at the latest example of lawlessness.
"This is another example of the staggering abuse of our state natural resources by gill nets," said Tony Friedrich, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland. "It also shows why NRP's effective enforcement of our marine laws is critical for a healthy bay."
Said Bill Goldsborough, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist and member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission: "The watermen's community has to step up more than it has and put its house in order. They have to put pressure on the illegal watermen."
State officials, who have toughened penalties and stepped up prosecution, vowed to squeeze the poachers even harder. The public, in turn, is offering police tips as never before, said Joe Gill, DNR's deputy secretary and former assistant attorney general.
"This is a sign of good, aggressive police work. This is a sign we are catching offenders," he said. "I think it is unacceptable to the public, as perhaps it wasn't before, to allow this kind of poaching to go on."
Rafter said three unmarked nets were tied together and anchored to form a 900-yard-long death trap.
Gill nets that drift are legal in Maryland. But anchored gill nets — mazes of nylon mesh held in place on the bay bottom by multiple anchors — were banned in 1985 to protect the population of striped bass, also known as rockfish.
Watermen are required to stay within two miles of their gill nets because of the risk that large numbers of other fish could be caught in them and killed. They also are required to mark nets with plastic floats.
Rafter and Officers Greg Harris and Drew Wilson discovered the net Monday afternoon while dragging a popular illegal fishing area on the opening day of the gill net season. It is part of an annual cat-and-mouse game between poachers and their underwater nets and police with their hooks and sonar.
For example, NRP arrested eight Rock Hall watermen last February for numerous striped bass violations, including netting oversized fish. In 2001, 11 Rock Hall watermen were arrested for poaching in the Chester River and officers seized 3,950 pounds of striped bass with a market value of $6,200. In the winter of 1993, officers hauled up 22 illegal nets totaling five miles dotting the Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore County to Calvert County.
On Monday, after hooking the net, the officers marked it and returned it to the bottom. At midnight, with snow and sleet falling, the officers staked out the area, hoping the poacher would return.
"Ice covered everything. We had to chip away at the build-up on the windows just to keep watch," said Rafter, a former waterman and deputy sheriff. "At dawn, the fog moved in. The only saving grace was the winds were calm and the water was flat."
At 7 a.m., they began hauling in the net and pulling out the fish. When the pile was 3-feet deep on the deck, they called for help. The Widener, on icebreaking duties in the Magothy River, headed across the bay.
The nets will be destroyed and money from the sale of the fish will go to buy more surveillance gear for NRP. Rafter said they have their suspicions about the identity of the poachers, "but it would be hard to prove."