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posted in: General

December 16, 2013

Sportsmen Tell Scientists: We Need More Clarity to Restore Water Protections

Earlier today I spoke to an independent panel of scientists reviewing an EPA report that summarizes our best understanding of how wetlands and streams affect water quality. This report is important because it will inform the rules the federal government comes up with that say which bodies of water in America deserve protection by the landmark Clean Water Act. These rules have been up in the air for over a decade because a couple of Supreme Court decisions in the 2000s put longstanding protections for wetlands and headwater streams – some of the waters most important to sportsmen – in jeopardy.

I told the panel that hunting and fishing are a major part of the American heritage and economy, and they both depend on clean water. Also, I presented the consensus views of the sportsmen’s community: While we’re generally pleased with the report, EPA can improve it by taking a closer look at areas like the Prairie Pothole Region, which is home to as many as 70 percent of all the ducks in North America.

Read on for my full remarks. Also, follow a webcast of the panel’s deliberations over the next two days here.

Then tell the EPA you support actions that protect wetlands and headwater streams based on the best available science.

 Statement of Jimmy Hague

Director, Center for Water Resources

Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

To the Panel for the Review of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Report:

Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence

December 16, 2013

Chairwoman Rodewald and members of the panel, thank you for the opportunity to address you on this issue of utmost importance to the sportsmen’s community and comment on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) report Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence.

I am Jimmy Hague, Director of the Center for Water Resources at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP). The TRCP is a coalition of more than 30 organizations, some of which are represented here today, dedicated to strengthening the laws, policies, and practices affecting fish and wildlife conservation. Inspired by the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, we work every day to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.

Each year, 47 million Americans head into the field to hunt or fish. The money sportsmen spend in pursuit of their passion supports everything from major manufacturing industries to small businesses in communities across the country. The economic benefits of hunting and angling – which total $200 billion a year – are especially pronounced in rural areas, where money brought in during the hunting season can be enough to keep small businesses operational for the whole year. Through fees and excise taxes on sporting equipment, sportsmen also pay hundreds of millions of dollars each year for wildlife management, habitat conservation, and public access.

The TRCP has been involved in debates over the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act for years because these economic and conservation benefits – plus over a million American jobs – all depend on clean water and productive wetlands.

However, hunting and fishing are not merely an irreplaceable component of our economy. They are a heritage we cherish and want to pass on to our children. As streams are lost to pollution and wetlands drained, fish, wildlife and sporting access are lost along with them. The Clean Water Act is the best tool we have to protect the quality of our water resources, and its jurisdiction needs to be clear to work effectively.

The TRCP was pleased to see the EPA produce the Connectivity report synthesizing more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications of the best available science on wetlands and headwater streams in preparation for a rulemaking on Clean Water Act jurisdiction. Several of TRCP’s partner organizations, including Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Izaak Walton League of America and The Wildlife Society, submitted detailed comments to the Science Advisory Board (SAB), and I commend those comments to you because these organizations contain some of the foremost wetlands and streams scientists in the world. However, today I will restrict my comments and recommendations to the consensus views contained in a letter to the SAB from 16 of the nation’s leading sportsmen organizations:

  • American Fisheries Society
  • American Sportfishing Association
  • B.A.S.S. LLC
  • Berkley Conservation Institute
  • Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance
  • Delta Waterfowl
  • Ducks Unlimited
  • Izaak Walton League of America
  • National Wildlife Federation
  • Pheasants Forever
  • Quail Forever
  • Snook & Gamefish Foundation
  • Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
  • Trout Unlimited
  • Wildlife Management Institute
  • The Wildlife Society

Our letter contained two comments and suggested one area for further analysis in the final report.

First, we agree with the draft Connectivity report that the watershed scale is the appropriate context for assessing connectivity. Using this fundamental ecological unit will lead to better management of the resource because it can account for the myriad factors affecting our water quality.

Second, we commend the draft Connectivity report for recognizing the importance of aggregating the effects of small water bodies in a watershed. This approach is critical to determining connectivity of some of the waters most important to sportsmen.

Take, for example, the Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas. This area, stretching into Canada, is home to as many as 70 percent of all the ducks in North America. Taken individually, a single pothole may have little impact on downstream waters. But taken as a class, they act as important water sinks and pollutant traps. Therefore, the wholesale draining or filling of the Prairie Pothole Region will impair water quality downstream. It will also irreparably harm waterfowl habitat, America’s duck hunters and part of the $200 billion sportsmen economy I described earlier.

This leads me to our recommendation for the panel. The draft report does not draw general conclusions about the connectivity of unidirectional wetlands but does say that such evaluations could be done on a case-by-case basis. We ask that the final report include additional clarity on the connectivity of unidirectional wetlands. Even if their connectivity cannot be assessed on a categorical basis, there is sufficient evidence to assess it at a regional or watershed level in some cases, such as the Prairie Pothole Region. Such analysis will strengthen the report and make the subsequent rulemaking this report will inform more useful.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment and for your service on this panel. I look forward to reviewing your results.

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posted in: General

December 12, 2013

Big Swordfish, Tiny Boat

 

Here’s a fascinating fish story that’s clearly a case of don’t try this at your home port, but appreciate the skill involved.

Three anglers went about 18 miles offshore out of Pompano Beach, Fla., last week in a 19-foot skiff and came back with a 300-pound swordfish.

Daytime swordfishing, where anglers drop a bait to the bottom in 1,500-2,000 feet of water, is big in South Florida with recreational and commercial anglers.

Capt. Stan Hunt offers swordfish charters, as well as nearshore trips for sailfish, tuna, wahoo, kingfish and dolphin, on his 52-foot sportfisherman Rebound out of Hillsboro Inlet Marina.

With calm seas and no charter, Hunt and his mate Tom Bardes decided to try to catch a daytime swordfish in Hunt’s 19-foot Carolina Skiff, a boat that Hunt typically uses to fish for snook at night in the Intracoastal Waterway. At the last minute they were joined by Ryan Goldman, who works on charter and private boats.

They left Hillsboro Inlet at 5:30 a.m. and ran southeast for about 90 minutes in the 70-horsepower outboard-powered skiff, until they were 17-18 miles offshore and in the midst of the daytime swordfish fleet.

“We knew it was going to be nice,” Hunt said. “There was like a 2-, 3-foot rolling swell. It was beautiful out there.”

The trio made several drops to the bottom in 1,550-1,800 feet using dolphin bellies, snakeheads, squid and ribbonfish for bait. A swordfish whacked the bait on the second drop, but didn’t come back.

After two more drops, Bardes predicted that they’d get a bite at 2 p.m. At 1:45, the swordfish ate a large bonito strip in 1,750 feet.

Hunt and a friend had outfitted his boat for swordfishing by building a rod-holder with extra-strong support into the hatch in the boat’s seat. Goldman fought the fish on an LP electric reel spooled with 80-pound Diamond Braid line.

After the swordfish took off with the bait, it swam almost straight up to the boat. Goldman had the reel going as fast as it could and Hunt had the boat going backwards to keep tension on the line.

In less than 10 minutes, Goldman had about half of the leader on the reel and Hunt was able to remove the 10-pound lead weight from it and get a good look at the fish.

“We knew he was over 200,” Hunt said. “At that point he went down about 1,500 feet and started fighting like no other. It was intense.

“He had us doing 360s around him, following him, trying to get on him. He had us going inshore and offshore. He never jumped. He was a nasty fish.”

After about an hour, Goldman had the fish within 10 feet of the boat and about eight feet down. Bardes harpooned the fish, then the men had to figure out how to get the swordfish, which was bashing the boat with its bill, in the boat without tipping over.

“He was pretty hefty,” Hunt said. “With us three standing on the side of the boat and pulling him over, the rails were touching the water.”

Commercial swordfisherman Matt Gill came over to photograph the catch, then Hunt, Bardes and Goldman, who were then off Fort Lauderdale, made a few more drops, with no bites, before heading home with the fish, which Hunt cut up and gave to a number of his friends.

Fishing on other boats, Hunt had caught a 578-pound swordfish on rod and reel and a 483-pounder on an electric reel, but this fish was every bit as memorable.

“For us guys who have caught hundreds and hundreds of swordfish in bigger boats, it’s fun to catch a 50-pounder [in a boat that size],” said Hunt, who had previously caught swordfish from a small center console that he owned. “That was actually the first fish on that little boat and on my new sword rod.”

Asked if he ever felt that he and Bardes and Goldman were in danger during the trip, Hunt said, “Not one bit. Being in that boat especially, that thing is unsinkable.

“It was flat calm seas and we’re all very experienced. Being in danger never crossed my mind, until that bill was whacking the side of the boat.”

 

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posted in: General

December 10, 2013

How to Talk to an Anti-hunter

Hunters and anglers all love to tell a good fish tale, whether it’s about the big one that got away or some other cherished outdoor experience. No matter how entertaining the story, it is inevitable that anyone sharing their adventures will sooner or later meet an anti-hunter.

In my experience, the majority of people who categorize themselves as being anti-hunting do not fit the stereotypical image of hemp-shirted vegans waving PETA flags. They are average folks who feel uncomfortable with the idea of hunting, yet can’t define precisely why.

Every sportsman confronted by an anti-hunter has heard some variation of the following misinformed and inaccurate catchphrases. The next time you do, arm yourself with a logical, factual rebuttal and you may just open a mind to the idea that hunting plays an important role in conservation. Don’t expect an anti-hunter to pick up arms and head into the woods to kill his or her next meal – but hopefully they will leave the conversation with a greater respect and understanding of the role of hunting in today’s society.

“Hunting just to hang a head on the wall is wrong.”

We agree, and in every state and province within North America, it’s also illegal. A trophy on the wall is many things – decoration, art, a remembrance of a good hunt, but it is never the only thing a sportsman brings back from the field.

Failing to take every edible part of an animal, bird or fish is called wanton waste. Although the details of wanton waste laws vary from place to place, ethical sportsmen universally denounce the idea of wasting an animal. Being convicted of wanton waste carries not only legal ramifications such as loss of future hunting privileges, mandatory fines and potential jail time, but also social condemnation from fellow sportsmen. What’s more, wanton waste laws have helped inspire sportsmen’s organizations to donate about 2.6 million pound of meat annually to food banks, homeless shelters and needy families.

 “You should only shoot wildlife with a camera.”

Users of our public wildlife are either consumptive, like hunters and fishermen, or non-consumptive such as birdwatchers or nature photographers. Watching a strutting sage grouse or taking a photo of magnificent bull elk is free, but the conservation programs that create these opportunities are not. And it is sportsmen’s dollars raised through tag and license sales and excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment – not general taxes – that fund state and federal wildlife agencies.

Hunters and anglers pay for important things such as habitat improvement projects, compensating farmers for crop damage, wildlife biologist salaries, fish hatcheries, migration studies, disease research, winter feed for elk and countless other things that contribute to the sustainability of all our native fish and wildlife, including non-game and endangered species.

Every photographer who snaps a picture of grizzly in Yellowstone National Park, every tourist who takes a sleigh ride to marvel at elk on the refuge in Jackson Hole or the hiker who catches a glimpse of the successfully reintroduced native black-footed ferret can thank a hunter for that experience.

 “Hunting upsets the balance of nature.”

In the United States, there are more than 300 million people. We build cities and roads, put ski resorts on the mountains and casinos in the deserts. We develop oil and gas fields as dense as subdivisions that cover entire landscapes. The only balance of nature that currently exists outside of designated wilderness areas is fragile and it is one that must be constantly monitored and managed to ensure it persists in the face of ever-increasing human impacts.

Where natural predators such as wolves or mountain lions have been removed, hunters keep elk, deer and antelope populations in check and prevent damage to crops. When agricultural development paved the way for eastern whitetail deer to move west and push out the less aggressive mule deer, hunters stepped up to help maintain that native species. A well-publicized hunt in Florida aims to eliminate the exploding population of non-native Burmese pythons who are endangering not only wildlife but domestic animals and humans as well. In the southern states where feral hogs have multiplied alarmingly, culling helps to preserve natural flora and fauna. Hunting reduces the number of so-called “problem bears” in the picturesque towns that have replaced the woodlands the bears used to call home. As humans, our simple existence has already upset the balance of nature and hunting is a very important management tool that enables our game and fish agencies to protect, and when necessary, restore that delicate balance.

You may be asking yourself why you should care what anti-hunters think.  But before you go putting that sticker on your truck of a cartoon kid whizzing on the word “anti-hunter,” remember this: in America, only about 30 million of us hunt and fish. That leaves approximately 270 million who don’t. In a democracy such as ours they are the majority who will determine the outcome of ballot initiatives that affect your sporting opportunities. As a hunter and conservationist, you need to do your part and help them make an educated decision.

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December 6, 2013

NUTS AND BOLTS… WHY NEW YORK GETS SCREWED

Summer Flounder state allocations are ridiculous, it’s time we address this

I’ve written about summer flounder here and elsewhere on more than one occasion, mostly as a management success story.  The species really is a good example of how fisheries management law can work if given a chance.  The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Mid Atlantic Council got sued back in 1999 over summer flounder, essentially forcing them to rebuild the stock.  And while there were some tough regulations, and much whining and gnashing of teeth during the recovery, we did indeed rebuild… to historical levels.  Without a doubt, we’re enjoying the benefits.  The stock is entirely different than it used to be.  There is an abundance of older, larger fish around.  So much so that it’s become a significant part of my “light-tackle” business.  Indeed that’s a good thing.

It’s not surprising that such a rebuilt stock looks quite a bit different than the badly overfished, truncated one did.  Not only are there more, older larger fish around, the stock seems to have expanded north and east.  Anglers have been noting such a shift for several years, and now the science is proving that this is indeed the case.  Recent research by Dave E. Richardson, et.al., has shown that the geographic distribution of the stock is unquestionably different than it was a decade ago.  According to the new science, the bulk of the population now appears to occur off Northern New Jersey, the south shore of Long Island and Rhode Island, where as ten years ago the bulk of fish appeared to be off of southern New Jersey.  Of course there are different theories on why this is the case.  Climate change is a likely culprit as similar patterns have been observed in other species in the Northeast US, but it’s intuitive that when a stock rebuilds after decades of overfishing, it expands and the dynamics of that stock will change.

Summer flounder is a jointly managed stock, with responsibility shared between the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which addresses fisheries in federal waters, and the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission (ASMFC), which generally manages the inshore fishery.  Before 1999, summer flounder were managed on a coast-wide basis.  In other words, there was a single size and bag limit for all anglers, wherever they might happen to fish.  But the abundance and average size of the fluke wasn’t the same in every state, so some of the states argued that the one-size-fits-all system wasn’t fair.  States with modest harvests objected to their anglers being penalized for another state’s overfishing in the prior year.

So, through an addendum, it was decided that states would get a percentage of the total quota based on their alleged share of the catch in a single “baseline” year, 1998, which was chosen because it was the last year in which every state fished under identical regulations.   According to that single year of MRFSS (Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey) data, New York received about 17.5% of the overall harvest.  New Jersey got the lion’s share, a little under 40% – understandable, because that’s really where the center of the stock was back then.  Virginia’s allocation is about one percent less than New York’s.  All of the other states are minor players, with shares ranging from 2.95% in Maryland to 5.66% in Rhode Island.  From 2003 to 2013 each state has been adopting regulations based on that percentage of the overall quota that would theoretically keep its harvest within its historical share.  This is called “conservation equivalency.”

Because of the now well-documented geographic shift in the summer flounder population, today there are more fluke swimming off New York’s coast, and fewer off New Jersey’s.  But the current allocations don’t reflect that.    As a result, for many years, New York had the most restrictive regulations on the coast, yet still overfished its allocation by a significant amount, while New Jersey, which often had the most liberal rules, couldn’t catch its entire allotment.  Although that situation has changed in the past couple of years—New Jersey has relaxed its regulations enough that it is overfishing once again—New York’s rules remain the most restrictive, despite the increased number of fluke swimming off its shores, while New Jersey’s remain lax; even though it has fewer fish off its coast.  Jersey has been allocated such a large share of the summer flounder resource that it need not impose strict size and bag limits to stay within quota.  So New Jersey anglers end up with a much smaller size limit (often two inches below New York’s!) and a larger bag limit.  As regular readers of this column know, I’m all for constraining harvest to avoid overfishing, but this situation, besides being illogical, ends up being really unfair to New York’s anglers and angling related business.

I often find myself in the ridiculous situation where I’m fishing the New York side of Ambrose Channel in Lower New York Harbor and I’m tossing back dozens of 18” fish to get my 4 fish at 19”.  But 50’ to the west of me on the New Jersey side some guy is throwing those same 18” fish in his cooler (Jersey regs were five fish at 17.5” last year).  Similar boundaries—and regulatory disparities–exist between New York and Connecticut in Long Island Sound, New Jersey and Delaware in Delaware Bay, and Maryland and Virginia in the Chesapeake.  Not only is this sort of thing just stupid, it creates confusion and non-compliance.  For the enforcement guys its nightmare.  And it makes no sense because, despite the differing regulations, WE’RE ALL FISHING ON THE SAME STOCK OF SUMMER FLOUNDER!

Perhaps more important than all of this is the science.  It’s become a chorus amongst anglers, the recreational fishing industry, managers and the scientists themselves that we need better science in order to properly manage our fisheries.  Yet, under the state-by-state/conservation equivalency system we’re using a survey/data-collection system that never was intended to be used on a state scale.  The precision of such surveys (The Marine Recreational Fishing Statics Survey –MRFSS, and now Marine Recreational Information Program-MRIP) are simply not adequate to manage state-by-state quotas, nor have they performed well in that respect.   We have been told again and again that the larger the area, the larger the sample, the more precision with such surveys.  So from a science perspective, state-by-state allocation simply doesn’t work.

Recreational catch surveys have been widely criticized by the angling community for as long as I can remember; that criticism has been justified in some cases, and probably not justified in others, but it is absolutely justified here.  I always find it interesting that when such surveys indicate that a reduction in fishing mortality is needed, there are those who say that the surveys are “fatally flawed.” Yet when a state wants to hold on to its unjust summer flounder allocation, which is based on just a single year of MRFSS data, the same people argue that such allocation is completely justified by the data.  Hard to miss the hypocrisy here.

Yes, New York did actually support the state-by-state allocation system when it was hatched.  It voted for the 1998 baseline, because it believed at the time that this system would result in an equitable distribution of fishing opportunity among the states, while assuring that conservation measures needed to rebuild the summer flounder stock could be imposed.  But New York state officials also believed that allocation decisions could be revisited in the future.  Believe me, since the real-world consequences of “conservation equivalency” became known, New York has been aggressively seeking reconsideration of that allocation.  But the states that ultimately benefited from such an allocation (read New Jersey) have not allowed that to happen, even in the face of hard science indicating the practicality of revisiting such allocations.

What’s the real solution here?  When you take state politics out of the equation, from purely a science and management perspective, the reasonable thing to do would be to nix state-by-state/conservation equivalency entirely, and go back to coast-wide management for at least three years.  In other words, have the states fish under the same regulations for a significant amount of time so that we can get the catch data that would give us a much clearer picture of what the fishery really looks like today, not what it looked like 15 years ago.  That data would give us a new baseline that would take into account current ecological, fishery, and socioeconomic conditions.  The data collection surveys would be much more precise given the larger “coast-wide” scale, which in the end would give us better science.  Not to mention, going to a coast-wide measure would provide for some equity among anglers within a region by eliminating the current size and bag limit disparities.

All this said, because coast-wide measures would likely disadvantage some states in the short term, and because those states will most certainly argue that we’ll again be in a situation where some states will be paying for others’ overages, I seriously doubt that a motion to adopt coast-wide measures will have sufficient support at either the Council or ASMFC.  I say this with some certainty because during the last 5 years as a Council member from New York, we’ve advocated moving to such coast wide measures each year. Despite the consistent recommendations from Council and NMFS biologists that conservation equivalency should be abandoned, we always get shot down.

A regional approach certainly has a better chance of being accepted.  States could pool their allocations into regions that could account for the stock redistribution as well as the states’ shared waters.  Yet such regional management approaches have to be voluntary and thus far there hasn’t been any agreement between states to initiate such regions. Most states don’t appear give a crap about New York, especially if easing New York’s woes means that they stand to lose a half an inch or a few days in the season.

Still, there is some progress.  There was a recent addendum allowing for voluntary sharing of “unused” summer flounder quota from states that were under their target quota.  In other words, they could give that unused quota to those states that might have gone over.  That provided some relief for New York last year. But this of course is a short-term fix.   Yet, there has indeed been recent, serious discussion of the need for a longer-term solution.  As a result, ASMFC recently formed a Summer Flounder Working Group who, with the State of New York developed a number of options for regional management.  I suspect we’ll see robust discussion on the benefits and draw backs of each region at next week’s Mid Atlantic Council meeting.  Some of the regional proposals might stand a chance. It all depends on whether the states think that the tradeoffs are worthwhile and are willing to give up a half-inch here, a fish or two there and, most importantly, season length in the southern end of the range.

I guess the point of all this is that New York is pissed off.  We’ve been getting screwed under state-by-state/conservation equivalency for an awful long time.  As the stock expands and moves north and eastward the situation just gets worse.  It’s not just anglers, charter/partyboat owners and tackle industry folks. New York’s Governor is pissed.  And apparently so is Senator Chuck Schumer, who just introduced a bill which would require us to draft an entirely new Fishery Management Plan if this doesn’t get resolved…  this year.

There really is no management or biological justification for continuing with the current system.  It’s all come down to the special interests of individual states (So much for “cooperative management”).  This is not how the system is supposed to work.  The states know it.  The Mid Atlantic Council knows it, and NMFS knows it.  Year after year, the Council and ASMFC hear their staff biologists recommend that state-by-state management be abandoned; year after year, the majority of the Council and ASMFC vote in favor of it, simply to avoid two or three years of stricter limits, even though in the end coast wide management would result in better science, a better understanding of the stock dynamics, and a fair and equitable allocation.  What’s especially annoying is that NMFS knows that employing conservation equivalency is wrong but, to date, they haven’t had the courage to rise above state politics and impose coast-wide measures, although they certainly have the power to do so.

New York deserves and expects some relief in 2014, and we should get it.  As a Council, we have an obligation to work this out.  If we don’t, and the states continue to thumb their noses at us, I suspect there will be legal action, and it appears to be entirely justified.  The Magnuson Stevens Act’s National Standards are pretty clear.  National Standard 2 states “Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available.”  That’s clearly not the case here if we disregard the new science on stock distribution, and if we continue to use the MRFSS/MRIP data on an inappropriately small scale that leads to high margins of error.  National Standard four states “Conservation and management measures shall not discriminate between residents of different States. If it becomes necessary to allocate or assign fishing privileges among various United States fishermen, such allocation shall be (A) fair and equitable to all such fishermen; (B) reasonably calculated to promote conservation; and (C) carried out in such manner that no particular individual, corporation, or other entity acquires an excessive share of such privileges.”  That one is pretty darn clear.  Lastly National Standard 6 states “Conservation and management measures shall take into account and allow for variations among, and contingencies in, fisheries, fishery resources, and catches.” Thus, if the best available science suggests that distribution of the stock in 2013 is different than the distribution of the stock in 1998 we have to address it.

Yes, the state of New York sued a couple of years ago on this and lost.  There was enough on the record to support the current rule, and in such cases a court won’t substitute its findings for that of a Federal agency, particularly with respect to such agency’s area of expertise. To overturn an agency decision, that decision must be “arbitrary”, “capricious” or illegal, and the judge determined that the summer flounder rulemaking was none of those.  But there are two things that need to be emphasized this time: the legal requirements of the Magnuson Stevenson Act and refusal by NMFS to rise above the state politics. Also the new science proving the changes in the distribution, abundance and age structure of the stock.

Quite honestly, I’m not a fan of such lawsuits as they take a lot of time and resources, which would be better served elsewhere.  But if we can’t work it out, in this case it’s entirely justified.  I’m really hoping we can agree on some sort of solution next week.  But if we can’t… Well…

Stay tuned.  Next week I’ll explain what happened and if there was any resolution.

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posted in: General

December 4, 2013

Coming to Justice

Photo courtesy of SC DNR

 

A couple of years ago, I wrote about four Maryland commercial netters – or should I say “poachers” – who were linked to illegally setting gill nets to catch tens of thousands of pounds of striped bass. The investigation was triggered by the discovery of an illegal net off Kent Island in the upper Chesapeake Bay in February of 2011. It turned up falsified catch documentation going back to 2007. Much of that illegal catch then was traced as being sold across state lines to New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Seemingly, that would violate the Lacey Act, which prohibits such actions.

In November a federal grand jury handed down an indictment on this long-pending case. The indictment alleges criminal conspiracy in the illegal catching of striped bass and the subsequent interstate sale of the illegal catch. My sincere hope is that these alleged criminals, masquerading as hard-working commercial fishermen, become wards of the federal government for a very long time. History, however, is not on the side of that outcome.

I applaud the Maryland Department of Natural Resources officers for putting a lot of long hours into researching this case. Their perseverance and dogged determination led to the indictment. Without their efforts it is likely that the alleged perpetrators would get only a slap on the wrist and have to pay a small fine, which only amounts to a cost of doing business. State and local judges have been reluctant to throw the book at this type of criminal activity. With this indictment, the case gets elevated to a federal court as a Lacey Act violation. That carries some real consequences.

Some might say that these DNR officers are only doing their jobs. Yeah, I get it. They are, but from my standpoint I don’t know what keeps them motivated when in the past their hard work has been largely disregarded by the state and local court systems. How many times have I read coverage about illegal fishing activities only to see those who got caught pay a small fine and be back at business as usual the next day. Why courts have been so reluctant to take a harsher stance is beyond me. Something akin to the three strikes kind of process would be a deterrent. First time … OK, it might have been a mistake, but a reasonable fine should get your attention. Second offense is not a mistake. You pay a hefty fine, do some jail time and lose your fishing permit for at least a year. Third offense: bye, bye. Pay a very hefty fine, do a big chunk of jail time and be subjected to a lifetime loss of all fishing permits.

I know, I know. Judges are very reluctant to take away someone’s ability to make a living. Can’t say that I understand why. I am unable to distinguish between stealing a public resource and robbing a 7-Eleven. The courts should understand that illegal harvest of common property resources takes away someone else’s ability to earn a living. It has a ripple effect far beyond the criminal activity itself.

I want to be sure that DNR officers, environmental police or whatever they are called in different states continue to be motivated to go the extra mile in pursuing a case. These folks are protecting our resources, and their job is not easy. In today’s world of bending way over backwards to protect the “rights” of the criminals, I wonder how we are trampling on the rights of the innocent – not to mention the condition of our resources. Too often, natural resource officers do whatever they can do to bring a case to justice, and all their work is negated by too light of a sentence. Those of us who would like to see our resources around for future generations need to support their good work.

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