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Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

[The Capital] - February 13, 2012 - 

This time last year, Natural Resources Police officers patrolling the waters of the Chesapeake found poachers' nets again and again.

Illegally sunken under the surface, the nets were loaded with tons of rockfish - a visible and disturbing example of the Chesapeake Bay's poaching problem.

On patrol around the Bay Bridge last week, a team of officers boarded several watermen's boats and found nothing amiss, as has been the case for much of this winter's rockfish netting season.

Police credit a series of new regulations and penalties, as well as an oddly warm winter, for the lack of illegal fishing activity on the bay.

"Nobody wanted to be the poster child, the reason the fishing was shut down," said Sgt. Art Windemuth, spokesman for the Natural Resources Police.

Poaching has long been a problem on the bay, whether it's otherwise-honest watermen occasionally cutting corners or flagrant violators who don't think the laws should apply to them.

Rockfish, in particular, have suffered at the hands of poachers.

In 2010, police and prosecutors wrapped up a multi-year federal poaching case that involved watermen and seafood dealers in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia who trafficked in millions of dollars worth of illegal fish. Several men were sentenced to time in federal prison.

Last winter's string of illegal net discoveries - from February through May - turned up more than 13 tons of fish, many of them dead, smelly and rotting.

The poachers used nets that normally are legal for catching rockfish (striped bass) in the wintertime, but poachers illegally sunk them to the bottom with weights. The nets, called gill nets because fish catch their gills on them, are supposed to be allowed to drift in the water.

The bulk of the illegal nets were found in Eastern Bay near Kent Island in February, and the Department of Natural Resources quickly put a temporary halt on the fishing season and accepted donations for a reward fund.

In the months after the winter gill net season ended, the DNR made changes to get better control over the harvest:

DNR does more audits at check-in stations, where watermen sell their fish to seafood buyers.

Watermen must mark all cork floats on their nets, instead of just the ones at each end.

When gill nets are out of season, watermen can't have net reels on board if they're fishing for rockfish by another method, such as hook-and-line.

Watermen are only allowed to catch 95 percent of what the state would normally allow, to account for uncertainties about poaching.

The state also plans to put in place a "hail-in, hail-out" system later this year. Watermen will have to report when they're going out on the water and where they're going. On the way back into port, they'll also have to report where they've been and where they plan to sell their fish.

The information will be tracked through a computer system, which the state is working on buying. The information will be used to double-check watermen and buyers.

"Things are better than we were for sure ... but we're not all the way there," said Lynn Fegley, assistant director of fisheries for the DNR.

Fegley was reluctant to say how well the new measures are working, since they've only been in place a few months and the biggest piece - the "hail-in, hail-out" system - isn't up and running yet.

The police officers who patrol the water, however, thing things are working.

On a warm, sunny afternoon last week, Officer Corey Tosten and Officer John Jones checked several boats that were setting gill nets around the Bay Bridge.

None had any violations - all of their paperwork was in order, all of their gear was marked, all of the fish were legal.

The officers said watermen have gotten the message that the state is serious about preventing rockfish poaching.

But Mother Nature may have a hand in the lack of illegal activity, too, they said.

Warm weather has meant rockfish aren't forming schools as much, and schools of fish are easier to catch with nets. The fish also have taken their time migrating up the bay.

That means the fish are harder to find and catch - and poachers aren't exactly fond of working hard.

Owen Clark, who captains the Aluminator out of Rock Hall, said the weather-induced rockfish behavior has been his biggest problem.

"It's harder on the pocketbook. You can't keep up with the fish," he said.

Tosten said watermen are on their game this year, always with their paperwork lined up and ready.

"Everything's at their fingertips, they're much more in compliance," he said.

Pat Mahoney Jr. and his dad, Pat Sr., were among the watermen checked by Tosten and Jones last week. The Eastport watermen had a few fat rockfish on board their boat, Wild Country.

Mahoney said the crackdown hasn't been a big deal.

"It's no problem at all to anyone who was legal to begin with," he said.

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