Ten Tons of Bad News

The relentless headlines the past week have told the first part of the story. Ten tons of rockfish, most of them 27 to 28 inches, were discovered in just three illegal gill nets set in waters south of Tilghman Island. That’s two thousand or more fish.

Braving frigid weather and using simple grappling hooks dragged on long lines in the depths of the Chesapeake, Natural Resources Police finally gave credence to persistent rumors of significant commercial gill net poaching.

Natural Resources Police deserve credit for locating these illegal nets, and Maryland Department of Natural Resources has to be royally commended for making a prompt and proportionate response: immediately closing gill net fishing for February. 

Fish Are Slowly Biting …

Yellow perch devotees are heading out in ever-increasing numbers judging by the minnow and grass shrimp sales and Angler’s Sport Center. On good days, particularly on the Susquehanna Flats, fine catches are being made. Up in the creeks and headwaters of the tributaries it’s still slow going, but the males are beginning to arrive. Spring is within hand’s each.

In Season

•Rabbit: thru Feb. 28
•Squirrel: thru Feb. 28
•Resident Canada geese: thru Mar. 5 
•Light goose conservation season special permit required: thru April 16

Natural Resources Police has put up a $5,000 reward — and contributions from the Maryland Watermen’s Association, Charter Boat Association and Coastal Conservation Association and Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen’s Association make it $6,000 and growing — for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the as yet unknown poachers. 

This violation may be just the tip of the iceberg. Poaching is an ancient, ongoing crime. Yet against that background of bad news, a larger, more positive future for our natural resources is emerging.

We are witnessing a sea change in Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ approach to conservation and enforcement. Beginning with its program of oyster sanctuaries and fostering oyster cultivation, then acquiring for the first time the authority to suspend commercial fishing licenses, DNR — backed by the O’Malley administration — is making history on the Tidewater.

Increasing the penalties for repeat offenders, significantly restructuring crabbing regulations to protect female crabs, closing the terrapin turtle fishery and reining in a destructive commercial yellow perch fishery: all these moves show that DNR is finally becoming the resource champion it’s always been meant to be.

Both the transformation and interdiction efforts with finfish, crabs and oysters are the more remarkable because the number of our water police has been halved by budget cuts over the last decade. 

A new day is dawning on our waters. Public opinion and conservation history is on the side of the department. If our traditional Bay industries don’t get on board, they are facing extinction. 

The state of Florida faced a similar confrontation some 15 years ago. An age-old commercial net fishery with a deeply ingrained outlaw culture flaunted efforts by conservation officials to bring them under control.

In 1994, a frustrated Florida electorate passed a constitutional amendment making commercial fishing with gill nets and other entangling devices illegal.

Such a stringent solution may not yet be at hand for the Chesapeake. But a cease-and-desist notice has definitely been nailed to the door. 


Getting Involved for the Bay

A number of organizations assist and support the conservation of our Chesapeake resources: 

The Coastal Conservation Association (ccamd.org) works to conserve, promote and enhance the present and future availability of coastal resources for public benefit and enjoyment. It supports and lobbies for and supports the conservation of the species for their own sake rather than for recreational fishing groups. Membership is an affordable $30 per year and includes a nationally oriented, well-written magazine. 

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (cbf.org) is the grandfather of Tidewater conservation organizations. The mission is restoring the Bay‘s health in terms of water quality and the abundance of native species. Membership of $25 per year includes a newsletter. The Foundation hosts numerous activities directed at informing citizens of Bay issues and improving the Chesapeake watershed. 

The Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen’s Association (mssa.net) is one of the oldest and the largest of the angler-oriented groups that also support conservation efforts on the Chesapeake. Formed to protect Marylanders’ right to fish, MSSA works with state and federal elected officials and other decision makers to ensure its members’ voices are heard on fishing-related legislation. A year’s membership is only $20 and includes a bi-monthly newsletter.