–Dave Maccar

Natural Resource Police officers uncovered a major fish poaching ring and three tons of illegally caught striped bass along with it. The operation included a string of nets the officers discovered running for about 900 yards and anchored off the southern tip of Kent Island, Maryland. The fish were in the nets when they were discovered.

The haul was so big, one of the largest seizures in Natural Resource Police history, that a 73-foot icebreaker had to be called in to help get them out of the water. Unfortunately, the poachers weren’t part of the haul and are still at large.

If they are caught, the poachers could face multiple criminal charges, such as setting nets out of season and possessing illegal nets, and, depending on the exact charges and whether the poachers have priors, they could face thousands of dollars in fines and possible jail time.

From this story on
_…The first operation began on Monday, as officers on routine patrol dragged grappling hooks through the water, looking for illegal nets, Windemuth said. The drift gill net season for rockfish had closed in mid-January, but was due to reopen yesterday. Officers sometimes find nets set out by watermen improperly or too early.
_…Using the grappling hooks, the officers discovered the nets at about 2 p.m. on Monday. Gill nets hang vertically in the water, so fish swimming by are trapped in the openings. In Maryland, only drift gill nets — which aren’t anchored and can drift in the water — are allowed. They must be marked with floats on the surface and the watermen must be in the area. These nets under the surface weren’t marked and there were no watermen around, Windemuth said.

These nets under the surface weren’t marked and there were no watermen around, Windemuth said.

The NRP officers — Cpl. Roy Rafter, Officer Greg Harris and Officer Drew Wilson — decided to lie in wait, to see if they could spot the poacher or poachers in action. “It was cold, sleeting, snowing, raining and all that, and we had these officers out in the middle of the bay,” Windemuth said.

The cops stayed out all night, but the poachers never showed.

So by 7 a.m. yesterday, the officers decided not to let the illegal nets stay in the water any longer, so as to minimize the number of fish and other critters caught in the net. “While this net is in the water, it’s continually catching fish, snaring ducks and geese and whatever might swim through it,” Windemuth said.

When the officers began to haul in the nets, they weren’t quite sure what they were dealing with.

By mid-morning, though, they had hundreds of feet of net and literally a ton of fish weighing down their patrol boat. That’s when they called in the Widener.

The Widener wound up hauling up about another two tons of fish.

The fish and 900 yards of nets were taken to the Department of Natural Resources facility at Matapeake on Kent Island, where cops and biologists spent most of yesterday cutting the fish free and assessing the scope of the bust.

All told, they counted 529 fish weighing 5,721 pounds, Windemuth said. Some fish will be set aside for scientific research. Undersized and oversized fish will be donated to food pantries and shelters.

Fish that are legal size will be sold at market, with the proceeds set aside until the conclusion of the case. It’s possible the money could stay with the Department of Natural

Resources to be used in efforts to help the rockfish population.

The nets snared almost all rockfish, also called striped bass. There were some mud shad and at least one duck.

Windemuth said watermen currently are getting about $2.50 per pound for rockfish, so the value of the poached fish could be close to $15,000. The nets are worth about $2,000, Windemuth said.
And, as usual, honest commercial fishermen will suffer for the poachers’ actions…

_…In addition, other watermen will suffer. The 3 tons of fish will count against the statewide quota of rockfish that can be caught by commercial watermen, Windemuth said. This discovery of poaching operations comes not long after a multistate investigation of ongoing rockfish poaching in the Chesapeake Bay wrapped up.

That multiagency investigation went on for years in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and nabbed about two dozen watermen, dealers and businesses that were accused of manipulating the state’s fish-tagging system to catch more fish._