In an incident that has reverberated among fishermen up the East Coast, more than 10 tons of illegally caught striped bass were confiscated by environmental police in Maryland over the last two weeks.
Members of the Maryland Natural Resources Police found the fish in unmarked, illegal underwater gill nets on the bottom of Chesapeake Bay. To catch striped bass using a gill net in the Chesapeake fishermen must be licensed and are required to use marked buoys. Legal gill nets float and hang vertically and are visible on the surface, marked by buoys. Illegal gill nets are anchored to the bottom by weights and are not visible from the surface.
Over a span of two days last week, Maryland environmental police harvested an astonishing 10 tons of striped bass from the illegal nets. Then on Monday this week police discovered an additional 1,800 yards of illegal anchored nets in two locations in state waters with another 1,159 pounds of striped bass. The incidents are under investigation and there have been no arrests yet. “This is the largest single illegal recovery to my knowledge,” said Sgt. Art Windemuth of Maryland Natural Resources Police, who is overseeing the investigation and recovery of the illegal nets.
He said last year police recovered a total of 15,000 yards of illegal gill nets. Last week they recovered over 5,000 yards in a single week.
Police said most of the nets were found southeast of Annapolis, near Poplar Island and south to a place called Bloody Point. As the illegal nets were hauled, police released what live stripers they could, but thousands of fish were too stressed to survive and could not be released, police said. The fish that were of legal size were reportedly sold to fish markets with the proceeds going toward Maryland natural resources law enforcement. Undersized fish were donated to shelters and food banks.
“These violations are a shameful theft of the public trust,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said in a statement reported by the Associated Press, pointedly noting that the poachers were stealing not only from the bay but from the licensed gill net watermen who are permitted to catch 300 pounds of fish a day in their legal nets.
The incident has forced an early closure of the commercial gill net fishery, which ordinarily would not have closed until the end of this month. Some 200 licensed gill net fishermen are affected by the early closure. Sergeant Windemuth said state fisheries managers closed the fishery out of concern that the gill net fishery quota had already been met. Quotas are meant to protect the fish stocks.
Sergeant Windemuth said a number of nonprofit fishing organizations from Maryland and beyond have come forward to pledge money to establish a reward fund.
“Quite a few fishing groups, watermen groups and conservation groups have offered reward money for information leading to an arrest,” he said. By Wednesday this week the sergeant said $10,000 had been collected for the fund.
Most of the striped bass that swim in Vineyard waters come from the Chesapeake Bay, where they spawn. The commercial striped bass fishery is regulated in Massachusetts with license requirements and quotas.
Sergeant Windemuth said the Maryland environmental police understand the potential impact of the incident on other coastal areas. “We understand that 80 per cent of the striped bass that swim up the Atlantic seaboard come from the Chesapeake Bay. We take our responsibility to oversee the resource very seriously and are proceeding carefully,” he said.
He added: “This comes on the heels of a serious investigation into the poaching of hundreds of thousands of pounds of rockfish being taken from Chesapeake Bay.” Rockfish is another term for striped bass.
The unlawful harvest of striped bass has been in the news on a variety of fronts in recent weeks and months.
The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries stepped in last month to investigate an incident involving trawlers that pulled up thousands of striped bass in their nets and dumped most of the bycatch overboard, leaving thousands of dead fish floating in the ocean. The incident stirred outrage online from the fishing community; a provocative video about it has been posted on YouTube.
Last November Virginia, Maryland and federal law enforcement authorities wrapped up a case involving more than a million pounds of illegally harvested striped bass that was sold through a variety of schemes. Ocean Pro Ltd., doing business as Profish, a large seafood wholesaler in Washington, D.C., and its part-owners were sentenced with fines and jail time.
“When fishermen and fish wholesalers do not comply with the law, they imperil the entire fishery and adversely impact the livelihoods of those in the fishing industry who abide by the law,” said an assistant U.S. Attorney General in a statement.
Details of the case can be found on the U.S. Justice Department Web site.