OCEAN CITY — Frustrated with an alarming spike in the number of illegal catch and poaching cases in the state’s waterways, including the areas around Ocean City and the coastal bays, and perhaps more frequently the Chesapeake Bay, a trio of Eastern Shore lawmakers this week introduced legislation to increase the number of Natural Resources Police (NRP) officers on patrol.
In the last few years, there has been a significant increase in poaching and illegal harvest cases in and around the Chesapeake, particularly of striped bass and other popular species. In addition, there have been several recent cases of illegal rockfish catches in state waters around the resort area. While the reported cases have been largely the result of NRP enforcement actions, a much larger number of incidents go unreported and unenforced because the agency’s ranks are at 20-year lows.
To that end, Senators Richard Colburn and Roy Dyson, along with Delegate Rudy Cane, this week introduced legislation that would restore the NRP to a level needed to meet the demand over the next 10 years. Since 1990, there has been a 50-percent decline in the number of NRP officers. The bill’s intent is to increase the number of NRP officers to at least 435 within the next 10 years.
From a high of 451 law enforcement positions within both the NRP and the State Forest and Park Service in 1990, the ranks have declined to just 238 currently, largely due to budget constraints and department consolidations. The bill’s sponsors would like to see the number of NRP officers steadily increase over the next decade to a total of at least 435, or an addition of 207 officers. According to the fiscal and policy note attached to the legislation, the proposed increases in the numbers of NRP officers are warranted.
“This information suggests that while NRP’s responsibilities have increased substantially over the past 20 years, the number of NRP officers available to fulfill these responsibilities has decreased,” the note reads.
In January, the DNR submitted a report on NRP level of service standards to the various budget committees in the General Assembly and summarized staffing needs. In the report, the DNR told state lawmakers just to offset retirements, the NRP would need to hire and train enough recruits to replace a minimum of 14 officers each year for each of the next five years. The DNR suggests NRP officers be hired on a contractual basis, rather than a permanent basis, in order to respond to summer peak workload demands.