High-tech gear helps reel in fish poachers


A growing number of maritime agencies are waging high-tech battles with poachers illegally fishing the nation’s waterways.

  • Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police officers cut striped bass from an anchored gillnet in Chesapeake Bay.

    Maryland Department of Natural Resources

    Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police officers cut striped bass from an anchored gillnet in Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police officers cut striped bass from an anchored gillnet in Chesapeake Bay.

Poaching is an ongoing problem for the commercial marine fishing industry, which in 2009 was a $38.4 billion business, says Lesli Bales-Sherrod, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Law Enforcement.

Poachers regularly target rockfish, salmon, oysters, scallops, lobsters, endangered sea turtles and other species, authorities say. The devices now being employed to stop them include infrared video cameras, Global Positioning System tracking devices and electronic fencing.

Since January, the Maryland Natural Resources Police has monitored the Chesapeake Bay region with four radar units and two infrared video cameras placed at confidential locations, says George Johnson, the NRP superintendent colonel.

Bales-Sherrod says her office investigated 9,662 fish incidents between 2007 and 2009 but the economic loss from poaching is difficult to calculate. Consumers can be affected in various ways. In some cases, low-value fish is mislabeled and sold as high-value fish, Bales-Sherrod says. Also, if fishers bring in more than their allowed amount, that can drive down the price for a species, she says.

“Without adequate enforcement, those willing to break the law not only potentially harm the resource, but also other hardworking fishermen who abide by the regulations needed to ensure the stocks are sustainable into the future,” Bales-Sherrod says.

In February, Maryland NRP found 12.5 tons of rockfish in illegally anchored gill nets in the Chesapeake Bay. The discovery prompted the state to close the commercial rockfish fishery from Feb. 4 to Feb. 25.

Some states — Alaska, Maryland and Washington among them — require fishers to tag their catch, so if illegal products enter the marketplace, they can be traced to their origin, says Michael Hirshfield, the chief scientist for Oceana, a Washington-based group focused on ocean conservation and restoration.

“It’s the coming thing,” Hirshfield says. “As the technology for tracking becomes cheaper, it’s spreading.”

Because poachers can use radar to see police vessels coming, police are becoming more sophisticated in their enforcement approach.

Johnson says that later this year, Maryland NRP will launch a feature called “geo-fencing” — the state will be able to draw electronic fences around oyster sanctuaries, which will trigger an alarm when vessels break the virtual barrier.

“This is like a force multiplier for us. It allows us to have more eyes on the water when we have less people on patrol,” Johnson says.

Among state enforcement efforts:

In Washington state, law enforcement obtains court orders to place GPS tracking devices on boats suspected of poaching activity, says Mike Cenci, deputy chief of operations for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The state also deploys video cameras at confidential locations. The cameras have helped catch salmon poachers, he says.

In South Florida, natural resources police use high-powered spotting scopes to zoom in on poachers, says Katie Purcell, a spokeswoman with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The scopes have been effective at catching poachers robbing lobster traps, Purcell says.

Off the coast of Southern California, investigators first build a case against an offender, then send in a covert dive team to catch a violation in progress, says Lt. Eric Kord of the California Department of Fish and Game. “It’s very effective if you’ve done the proper background and intelligence,” he says.

Danny Webster of Deal Island, Md., who fishes for oysters, says he doesn’t have a problem with surveillance measures. He says he hopes it stops people who are gaining an unfair advantage by raiding oyster sanctuaries.

“Most watermen are honest, and that will weed out the watermen who aren’t. I say get rid of the bad apples and we’ll get our respect back,” Webster says.

High-tech gear helps reel in fish poachers – USATODAY.com

Published by Hank Sibley Bluewater Yacht Sales

Hank Sibley hsibley@bwys.com Sales Professional Bluewater Yacht Sales Hampton, VA 804.337.1945 (Mobile) 757.788.7082 (Office) 757.723.3329 (Fax)

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