Water, Earth, Sky

Scott Shenk writes about the environment.

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Rockfish outlaws

The image is sickening: rockfish, caught in illegal nets in the Chesapeake Bay, piled in baskets on a pier, like pirates’ booty. The toll so far, about 10  tons, according to a story the Baltimore Sun.

 The newspaper reported that Maryland Department of Natural Resources officers found a 900-yard-long anchored gill net Monday night. The following day, after staking out the poaching stand with no one showing up to claim the fish, the haul was unloaded and  donated to charity. Then more nets full of  fish were discovered.

Photo by Maryland Natural Resources Police on Tuesday shows rockfish seized near Bloody Point Light.

 While poaching has been around as long as fishermen have been casting nets, the sheer, obscene scale of it—the senseless greed for a buck—is hard to comprehend.

 While the law doesn’t differentiate, the thought of a fisherman with no money and a family to feed taking a few extra fish, is one thing. But wantonly killing a bay treasure by the ton?

 No one’s saying yet who’s responsible. But if it’s a waterman, it would be just the latest in a string of cases of outlaws  intent on pillaging the bay and its resources.

 In the most recent example locally, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission last fall revoked the fishing licenses of eight watermen involved in illegal trafficking of striped bass. Three of them live in Stafford County.

 While the circumstances are different, the bottom line—greed—is the same.

 Most of the many watermen I’ve met and interviewed in my 34 years at the newspaper are honest, hard-working people who love what they do, and more important, love the water.

 They know that their livelihood depends upon a sustainable resource. Just 20 years ago, rockfish—known here as “rock” or “stripers”—were so scarce that a moratorium on catching them was the only way to save the fishery.

 With conservation efforts, they bounced back with a vengeance. Watermen and recreational fishermen have been sharing in the bounty for years now, though water quality and food for the big predators are concerns.

 A couple summers ago, I caught and released half a dozen rockfish, one of them about 10 pounds, one morning near a rock pile off Coles Point. A small boat came over from the Maryland side with three young fishermen who, like me, caught fish for an hour before the action waned.

 I spent memorable times as a teenager camping at Morgantown on the Maryland shore of the Potomac. In the spring, we’d catch big, fat stripers off the beach, with blood worms. Huge schools of rock would feed on menhaden on the surface in the fall.

 Those kinds of memories are shared by countless others whose lives have been enriched by the silver and black-striped fish that have been swimming in the bay for millennia.

 It’s great that the authorities are tackling this seemingly growing problem. Let’s hope the outlaws get what’s coming to them.