A true fish story: Md. wildlife police work to stop poachers from stealing bass by the ton

The Maryland state fish is cherished by restaurants and stores, as well as criminals looking for easy money.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2011; 10:36 PM

As three-foot-high waves rocked his police boat, Cpl. Roy Rafter helped pull an illegal 1,500-yard fishing net from the icy Chesapeake Bay for two hours with his bare hands.

His muscles aching, Rafter painstakingly released each dead and dying rockfish from the strangling net with a sharp box cutter. He felt them flopping softly at his feet. Sweat that ran down his neck turned to frost in the bitter cold.

Hauling in the net was "like filling a potato sack with bricks, tying a string to it, and pulling it toward you," he said.

It was another grueling February day for Rafter and his partner, Sgt. Bob Ford, Maryland Natural Resources Police officers who help patrol the deep waters of the eastern bay near the Bloody Point Lighthouse in the commercial gill net season for rockfish.

The tip that brought them to the poacher's net came at the end of a 3 a.m.-to-3 p.m. shift this week. Rafter had one foot on the boat and the other on the dock at the Matapeake complex on Kent Island when his cellphone rang. According to the caller, the net was anchored with a lead weight in a spot the officers had searched just 30 minutes earlier.

The net held 300 pounds of rockfish, a paltry amount compared with the 6,000 pounds of fish Rafter and Ford pulled out of the bay Feb. 1. So far this month, police have found about 26,000 pounds of rockfish - nearly 13 tons - in illegal nets. Under Maryland law, nets cannot be anchored; they must move with the tide.

A staggering catch found in illegal nets in the first four days of February forced the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to shut down commercial rockfish fishing, possibly for the whole month, taking money out the pockets of struggling watermen.

"When you have one of your best friends call you and tell you, 'I can't make a living because of these nets,' you know you have a job to do," said Rafter, son of a waterman and a former waterman himself. "This is all they know."

The plump, tasty rockfish is Maryland's state fish, a precious resource cherished by restaurants and stores of every ethnic persuasion - and by criminals looking for easy money.

Two years ago, police charged nine members of a trafficking ring that, over four years, handled 600,000 pounds of rockfish with a retail value of $3 million to $7 million. Rockfish, also called striped bass, or stripers, sell for about $2.50 a pound wholesale and $9 a pound retail, police said.

Seventy-five percent of the rockfish along the Atlantic Coast spawn in the Chesapeake. An entire economy of sport fishermen, eateries and shops from Maine to North Carolina rely on striped bass for tourism and food.

Protecting a way of life based on a single species of fish falls heavily on Maryland. Because of overfishing, the state placed a moratorium on catching rockfish for five years in the late 1980s.

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