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Will Potomac fishing-fine hike get away?

RICHMOND—Under the laws of both Virginia and Maryland, certain kinds of illegal fishing in the Potomac River can cost you a $1,000 fine.

Now, Maryland wants to raise that to $3,000, and take Virginia along with it.

But one senator says Virginia shouldn’t go along unless Maryland agrees to put in writing that Virginia can fine its own Potomac River law-breakers.

The Potomac River Compact has long governed regulation of the river by the two states it divides. And since 1958, said Sen. Emmett Hanger, the fine for more egregious types of illegal fishing—such as the taking of crabs, oysters, clams, or other shellfish from the river—has been $1,000. Those violations are comparable to Class 1 misdemeanors, Hanger said.

Maryland, he said, wants to raise its fine to $3,000, and the Potomac River compact requires that both states’ laws be the same. So Hanger proposed a bill to raise the fine in Virginia, arguing that $1,000 might not be deterrent enough for some activities.

“For a thousand dollars, this might just be a cost of doing business, if they’re poaching an oyster bed or something,” he said.

What’s not in the compact is a “gentleman’s agreement” that each state prosecutes its own residents if they’re charged with violations on the river.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford, wants that spelled out and backs a House amendment to Hanger’s bill that would do that.

Stuart thinks a $3,000 fine is too high without some guarantee that at least that some of the money will go to Virginia.

He hasn’t seen anyone prosecuted in Virginia for those violations. And while he can’t prove it, he suspects Maryland police of prosecuting violators in Maryland.

“Some of us are very concerned about this,” said Stuart, who has been a lawyer on the Northern Neck for two decades. “Not once have I seen a Virginia resident who is charged with an incident on the Potomac River taken to Virginia to have his case heard. They go to Maryland. That way, all the fines and cost go to the state of Maryland.”

He pushed for the Senate to accept that House amendment, although Hanger opposed it. Hanger said later that Maryland isn’t prepared to put that agreement into the compact’s language.

Without it, Stuart said, he’d rather see the bill fail.

“It’s really important that we keep that amendment on there,” Stuart said.

If Virginia doesn’t pass the bill, the high end of the fines for fishing violations would remain $1,000, since both states have to agree to the same penalties.

Because the Senate rejected the amendment, the bill will go back to the House and likely into a conference committee to try to work out a compromise.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245