For the second consecutive day, Natural Resources Police officers pulled illegal nets from the Chesapeake Bay Wednesday filled to the brim with striped bass.
In total, they have seized 10 tons of illegally caught fish, the largest haul of its type since the end of the rockfish moratorium more than two decades ago.
After detecting poachers' nets Monday night, patrol boats with grappling hooks snagged nets near Bloody Point at the southern tip of Kent Island Tuesday morning, Tuesday night and again Wednesday afternoon. They pulled up 2.8 tons, 3.5 tons and 3.5 tons.
In addition, an officer found a 2,100-yard submerged net Sunday in the Choptank River. It had just three fish in it, indicating it had been freshly set.
The commercial gill net season opened Tuesday. Marked nets that float and are monitored by fisherman are legal; hidden, anchored nets are not.
"We're going back out at first light," said NRP Sgt. Art Windemuth. "We've got officers who have been reassigned, working 18 hours a day. Any place that has water, we're looking."
While the investigation continues, Windemuth acknowledges they don't know who set these nets and may never know.
The discovery has unleashed a firestorm of criticism from fisheries regulators and the conservation and recreational communities.
Ed Liccione, chairman of the 1,400-member Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, called the total "jaw-dropping" and vowed to ask the General Assembly for a ban on nets if the commercial industry doesn't "get its own house in order."
Yesterday, the Maryland Watermen's Association added its voice to the call for action and begged watermen to turn in the renegades.
"It's just a handful of bad apples. They're out of control," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "They don't think the laws apply to them. It's not fair to the guys who do this honestly."
Poachers flood the market early in the season, causing a drop in prices. In addition, the fish seized by NRP are weighed and counting against the monthly quota. The February quota is 415,359 pounds.
Simns said fed-up watermen have been tipping NRP to the locations of nets.
"It's hard to catch them red-handed, but I think they will," he said. "It's only a matter of time."
Striped bass is the state fish and the Chesapeake Bay is the spawning ground and nursery for about 75 percent of the stock on the Eastern Seaboard. Decades of overfishing led to a five-year fishing moratorium that ended in 1990 to give the population a chance to rebound. As a result, what happens in Maryland is of interest up and down the coast.
Fishing websites are filled with the news of NRP's bust and Fisheries Service Director Tom O'Connell said he got a call from the head of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Service, the regional regulatory authority which sets Maryland's striped bass quota, asking for an update.
Despite toughening regulations and penalties last year and creating with a district court a pilot program to hear natural resources cases exclusively in Annapolis, O'Connell said the poaching issue will have to be revisited.
"It's become clear that the penalty isn't strong enough to deter this kind of action," O'Connell said. "We are in discussions now about legislation."
Recreational fishing groups stand ready to lobby for those changes.
Dave Smith, executive director of the 7,000-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, said, "This has got to stop."
"Recreational anglers have to get together and go to the General Assembly and say 'Let's get serious,'" he said.
Drifting gill nets are legal in Maryland waters from Jan. 1 to Feb. 28. Watermen must mark their nets and be within two miles of them. The Department of Natural Resources can close the season early if its appears watermen are going to exceed their monthly quota. This year, the season closed on Jan. 17 and reopened on Feb. 1.
Anchored gill nets — more efficient and deadly and harder to detect — have been illegal since 1985.
If convicted, poachers can be fined $1,000 for a first offense plus $1,500 per each striped bass. The state's points and penalties system for watermen, which took effect last February, could result in license suspensions or revocations.