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.