State Eyes Tough Penalties For Fishing Violators

OCEAN CITY – Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials announced a proposal for more stringent penalty system for commercial fishing law violations in tidal waters across the state including Ocean City and Worcester County.

Faced with a increase in natural resource law violations, including a spike in commercial poaching in recent years, DNR officials were instructed by state lawmakers last year to author and adopt a tougher penalty system for violators including enhanced penalties on first-time offenders. DNR fisheries officials worked closely with a penalty workgroup, tidal fisheries and sport fisheries advisory commissioners and the state’s Attorney General’s office to create a new commercial fishing violation penalty system aimed at further protecting the state’s natural resources.

“These valuable and fragile marine resources are part of the public trust,” said DNR Secretary John Griffin this week. “They belong to all citizens and we must protect them from those who would willfully break the law.”

The proposed changes, if approved, would dramatically change how commercial fishing violations are handled in Maryland. The current laws require several convictions to generate a suspension on one’s license and suspension time is minimal. However, the new penalty system introduced last week would, if approved, would provide a bigger hammer for even a single violation and tougher penalties for repeat offenders.

“We believe the proposed increased penalties remain reasonable and will provide a greater deterrence to people thinking about breaking the law,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell.

Under current state regulations, a tidal fishing license holder’s privilege to participate in a fishery may not be suspended unless the licensee has been convicted of at least three Maryland fisheries laws on separate days in a two-year period. The rather lenient regulations have not been successful in deterring commercial fishing violations. For example, in calendar year 2008, 1,670 of the 3,940 commercial tidal fishing license holders in the state who actively fished their licenses, or roughly 45 percent, received citations for violating state fishing laws.

As a result, last year the Maryland General Assembly, recognizing the deficiency on the punitive end of the state’s fishing regulations, directed the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to create a new administrative penalty system based on a single conviction of state fisheries laws and enhanced administrative penalties for commercial license holders who repeatedly violate the law, particularly laws intended to protect “aquatic species of special concern” including blue crabs, oysters and striped bass.

The proposed regulations would establish a tiered point system with the various penalties structured commiserate with the gravity or frequency of the offenses. For example, Tier I would include basic violations of state law and a conviction in this category would result in five points on the license of the offender, but no immediate suspension. A Tier II violation would include any illegal action that either impacts a resource in need of special protection, or demonstrates a disregard for state fishery laws and would carry a penalty of 10 points and a suspension of up to 30 days.

Finally, Tier III convictions would include serious violations that significantly impact a fishery or demonstrate a willful intent to break the law. Tier III violators, if convicted, would receive 15 points and a suspension of up to 60 days.

The public comment period on the proposed penalty changes will open in mid-December and several public hearings will be held throughout the month. The public comment period ends on Jan. 19.