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.”