Legislators Blast DNR For Rockfish Decision

BERLIN — A delegation of Eastern Shore lawmakers last month lashed out at state fisheries officials over a new regulation to hold back 5 percent of the Maryland’s annual striped bass quota in the wake of last year’s illegal taking of tons of rockfish around the state.

Last February, Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) confiscated 10 tons, or 26,000 pounds, of striped rockfish snagged in illegal gill nets in Maryland waters, prompting Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials to reconsider its data collection and fisheries management practices. As a result, earlier this fall, DNR officials announced it was holding back 5 percent of the annual commercial striped bass, or rockfish, quota in anticipation of similar illegal harvests by less than honest Maryland watermen in the coming year.

“The department will determine a percentage of the annual quota to be held back as a buffer against this management uncertainty,” the DNR’s new rule change reads. “The amount of quota held back will be reviewed annually and adjusted based upon the industry’s compliance with accountability and enforcement measures.”

While most agree fish confiscated from illegal gill nets should be counted into the state’s annual quota, state watermen in compliance with the rules believe the quota hold-back unnecessarily punishes all for the actions of an unscrupulous few.

“It has come to our attention that the Department of Natural Resources has decided on its own to hold back 5 percent of the allowable catch quota for striped bass based on the presumption that illegal fishing will make up that five percent,” the letter to DNR Secretary John Griffin penned by Worcester County Delegate Mike McDermott and signed by several other shore delegates and senators reads. “We find this action to be unprecedented and questionable.”

In the letter to Griffin dated Dec. 15, the legislators likened the situation to holding back an otherwise honest employee’s pay based on a premise he or she might steal from the company in the future.

“Nowhere would an employee of a company be docked 5 percent of their pay on the presumption that they will steal that same 5 percent from their employer,” the letter reads. “It’s an absurd premise.”

The letter, also signed by Senator Richard Colburn along with Delegates Charles Otto, Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio and Adelaide Eckardt among others, suggests the 5-percent quota hold-back could cost honest Maryland watermen hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost fishing opportunity.

“Depriving our hardworking watermen of their full catch quota could collectively cost them $300,000 at a time in our economy when few could afford the loss,” the letter reads. “To punish the honest and hardworking for a presumptive illegal activity of a few would be the real crime in this case.”

A 5-percent reduction in the state’s commercial striped bass harvest treads a fine line on a potential season closure. For example, just last week, with the 5-percent hold-back rule not in effect, the commercial striped bass season was abruptly closed on Dec. 29 with four days to go in the year and was not reopened until Tuesday of this week. With a 5-percent hold-back, that closure could have come much earlier.