By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun
5:24 p.m. EST, February 22, 2011
The commercial striped bass season will reopen Friday, three weeks after illegal nets filled with 10 tons of fish were found in the waters off Kent Island.
The decision yesterday morning by the Department of Natural Resources was hailed by cash-strapped watermen and supported by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and at least one recreational fishing group.
Watermen will be allowed to fish on Friday and Monday before the gill net season closes until December. Approximately 200,000 pounds of the February quota remains, an amount that represents about 1 percent of the entire 2011 commercial allocation.
"I concluded that reopening the fishery…is the defensible and right thing to do," said DNR Secretary John Griffin.Griffin closed the season on Feb. 4 rather than risk having the combination of legal fishing and poaching push the state over its monthly quota. Since that time, Natural Resources Police confiscated an additional 2.6 tons of fish.
Continued searches since last Wednesday by NRP boats pulling grappling hooks and a sweep by a Maryland Geological Survey vessel with side-scan sonar failed to turn up any additional nets. Griffin said he had confidence that the two-day season would not tap out the remaining quota.
But as insurance, he promised that NRP will step up patrols and that officers and fisheries biologists will be at major check-in stations both days to monitor the catch. The agency is offering a $30,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the striped bass poaching activities. The Catch-a-Poacher Hotline is 800-635-6124.
The leaders of the two largest commercials groups said they were grateful that DNR did not punish honest watermen for the acts of outlaws.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the truncated season "will be a little shot in the arm in this economy."
"When you haven't made any money for three weeks, it's good news. This means 400 people will pay some bills," he said.
At $2 per pound, a watermen could make as much as $1,200 before expenses for a two-day harvest.
Gibby Dean, president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association, said his members, consisting mainly of watermen in the lower bay, were "tickled to death to get these two days. If we don't work, we don't get paid. A lot of guys weren't walking a thin line economically, they were below the line."
Conservation organizations and recreational fishermen were less enthusiastic.
In a two-sentence statement, Bill Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said his group supported lifting the ban because of stepped-up enforcement and a commitment by DNR to subtract any additional seized fish from the quota.
Tony Friedrich, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, said that while his members would have preferred that the season remained closed, they recognized that DNR is taking steps to "enforce the law, reform the practice and protect the resource."
To that end, Griffin promised that clamping down on rampant poaching will remain a priority. Bills before the General Assembly would give DNR more authority to regulate commercial and recreational fishing, enforce laws and toughen penalties.
But eliminating renegades may require additional steps such as phasing out gill nets and transforming check stations from ones supervised by seafood dealers to state-run operations.
Griffin said he is asking recreational and commercial fishermen "to stand up and be counted."
"I think the time has come to move to a different culture in terms of being more accountable…to call out the people who are fishing illegally," he said.