6,000 pounds of illegally caught rockfish found in Chesapeake Bay

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 7:01 PM

Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police officers stumbled upon a poacher's net bulging with more than three tons of rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay, the largest haul seized by a single patrol in at least 25 years, the police said.

They retrieved about 6,000 pounds of rockfish Tuesday near the Bloody Point Lighthouse, between Queen Anne's and Talbot counties. Sgt. Art Windemuth, a DNR police spokesman, said the 900-yard gill net was likely in freezing waters for several days.

A pair of officers on patrol spotted the net at about 2 p.m. Monday and returned to base for a third officer. The three staked out the net overnight in freezing rain, waiting for someone to retrieve it, but no one came. They started to pull the net early Tuesday but had to call for help when they feared the weight would sink their boat.

"This is the largest seizure of rockfish that a patrol officer has made in the last 25 years," Windemuth said.

An investigation is pending, but the unsuccessful stakeout made it unlikely that the poacher will be caught. "These criminal acts are conducted in remote, isolated areas," Windemuth said.

The state had placed a temporary moratorium on commercial rockfish fishing when the monthly 327,000 pound quota was reached Jan. 12, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

The gill net was illegal because it was fixed and did not flow with the tide and because it was not monitored by someone who could release fish over the quota.

Rockfish, also known as striped bass, the Maryland state fish , sell for about $2.50 per pound. Maryland watches commercial catches closely and enforces the regulations of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission that protect the tasty species from overfishing with closed seasons, quotas and size and tagging requirements.

In 1985, Maryland placed a five-year moratorium on striped bass fishing when the population fell. When surveys determined that it was healthy, the moratorium was lifted with restrictions. The state currently has only 1,231 permits issued to catch rockfish.

Last year, the state enforced a 2.1 million pound quota on catches. This year's quota is 1.9 million pounds, said Harry Hornick, the striped bass program leader at DNR. Monday's large illegal catch will be subtracted from the quota.

The fish will be separated by size and sold or given to charities, Windemuth said.

This week's poaching pales compared to more organized fishing crimes in area waters. In 2009, a ring that trafficked in illegally caught rockfish from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River handled 600,000 pounds of the fish over four years, with a retail value between $3 million and $7 million, federal officials said.

At least nine people were charged after a four-year undercover operation.

Police say poaching tends to increase in lean economic times such as these.

Poaching carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 or twice the value of the catch. A maximum $500,000 fine or twice the value of the catch can be levied against a corporation.

Tuesday's illegal haul was more than 20 times the amount that a licensed fisherman can legally catch in a day, Windemuth said.

"It's hurting not only the resource, but it affects the lives of the majority of commercial fishermen who fish legally," Windemuth said.

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