Lawmaker Seeks to Crack Down on "Kingpin Poachers"

By Kerry Davis
Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS -- A Maryland delegate intends to file a bill Monday that would add up to two years of jail time to a list of penalties for first-time rockfish poachers, a direct result of poaching finds by Natural Resources Police in the Chesapeake Bay this month.

Delegate Herbert McMillan, R-Annapolis, is proposing the bill after hearing about the illegal nets found in the Bay starting Feb. 1.

Natural Resources Police have discovered more than 12 tons of illegally caught fish. The rockfish, or striped bass, were all discovered in illegally anchored gill nets.
Anchoring a net with weights has been illegal in Maryland since 1985.

McMillan worries that existing penalties are not steep enough to deter potential poachers.

"These people aren't playing by the rules and people are going to be outraged if they (Natural Resources Police) catch one and the poacher just loses their license," McMillan said.

As the law stands now, a one-year imprisonment is an option on a second poaching violation. McMillan's bill would add the penalty on a first offense and increase the years to two.

Imprisonment would be limited to people McMillan is calling "Kingpin Poachers," or those whose one-time poaching violation is valued at $20,000 or more.

But fishermen worry the bill could harm honest watermen by not being specific enough. Under current gill net fishing guidelines, fishermen must stay within two miles of their nets, which must be pulled out of the water by the end of each day.

"These nets are drifting, they're not stationary," said Larry Simns, the president of the Maryland Waterman's Association. "So it's not uncommon to get two or maybe three miles away from your net."

"If someone gets 2.1 miles away from their net, are they going to treat them like a criminal?" Simns said.

DNR Deputy Secretary Joseph Gill said he supports any effort to help manage the striped bass poaching problem, but didn't want to weigh in specifically until the bill is filed.

Gill also pointed out that the law already allows for a $1,500 fine per fish fee if a poacher is caught.

But McMillan said sometimes even a steep fine isn't enough to deter criminals.

"Not all of us have that much money to pay per fish, but you can always go to jail," McMillan said.

If passed, McMillan said his bill would not affect a poacher caught in the investigation into this month's poaching bust, since it would not be a law at the time of the crime.

Fisheries agencies closed gill net fishing season for the month on Feb. 4 as a result of the discoveries. The DNR had been scheduled to decide whether to reopen rockfish season for the month on Friday, but decided to delay making a decision until Monday.

The DNR has either sold or given away the fish that officers have recovered from the nets.

The reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a rockfish poacher was raised again on Friday and now stands at $30,500.