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Maryland poaching bills are competing

ANNAPOLIS — A bevy of poaching bills are making their way through the House of Delegates and Senate, highlighting divisions among lawmakers who are trying to address poaching problems in different ways.

While some of the bills were already in the works at the beginning of the session, others were quickly drafted after nearly 13 tons of poached rockfish were discovered in illegally-anchored nets in the Chesapeake Bay in February. But some worry that in the excitement the bills were drafted too quickly and overlap each other too much.

“This is overkill,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, at Friday’s Environmental Matters Committee meeting about a bill that would create stricter penalties for oyster poaching. “This is just giving someone a bill to look good.”

Five of the six House bills that would increase penalties for poachers have passed and are now in the Senate, with cross-filed Senate bills at similar stages. They all add heavier penalties for poaching oysters, crabs and rockfish, though most address one species at a time.

The “Kingpin Poaching” bill is the latest to swiftly clear the House, after a unanimous vote on it Monday. It would add up to two years of jail time to the list of possible punishments for those caught with more than $20,000 worth of poached fish.

Not all of the poaching bills’ sponsors agree on the best course of action.

In the case of the “Kingpin Poaching” bill, its sponsor, Del. Herbert McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, voted in committee to oppose a poaching bill that would create enhanced penalties for oyster poachers because McMillan said it was too narrowly written and the penalties too harsh, with a higher fine than those in his own “Kingpin” bill.

The debate inside the Environmental Matters Committee on Friday showed the confusion lawmakers feel about which bill does what, prompting the chair of the group, Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, to ask the committee to slow down and walk through each element of the law.

“Let me go through this because I want to understand it,” McIntosh said.

In the end, the group voted to approve one of three poaching bills sponsored by Del. James Gilchrist, D-Montgomery, that would institute enhanced penalties for those caught taking oysters without a valid license.

Fishermen’s groups are generally in favor of most of the poaching legislation, but think some may amount to nothing more than public relations stunts.

“Everybody wants to get on the bandwagon of doing something and they’ve gone overboard with it,” said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.

Rich Norling, the legislative liaison for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the DNR needs the authority these bills would provide.

“As people got interested and found other weaknesses in our deterrents, then they wrote several bills,” Norling said.”That’s sort of why we ended up with several bills instead of one.”

Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, said that however the bills were drafted, what’s most important is that they exist.

“The DNR has been struggling for years to try to solve this problem,” Frosh said. “The find of tons of rockfish caught illegally in gill nets helped them make their case this year that something’s got to be done about illegal poaching.”

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