ANNAPOLIS — Last year, the Maryland Natural Resources Police had to shut down rockfish season a month early because of serious poaching incidents, but this year, officers have, so far, encountered no illegal activity.
Officers say the lack of poaching can be attributed to several factors, including milder weather, new technologies and tools, and a no-tolerance position by the department against poaching.
“This year, prior to the season opening up, the department took a stance where they made it known that if illegal nets were found again this year that they would consider shutting the season down again,” said Sgt. Art Windemuth, spokesman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police.
Though rockfish season varies throughout the year, depending on the fishing method and whether it’s for recreational or commercial purposes, gill net season runs during December, January and February.
The legal method of fishing during this season involves using attended drift gill nets that fishermen float in the water and monitor close by.
The problem is that many poachers have taken to anchoring their gill nets, which is illegal, and leaving them unattended to wait for fish.
Last year, Natural Resources Police found 10,000 yards of illegal gill nets in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, with about 16 tons of rockfish recovered in those nets.
The previous year, the police had found 15,000 yards of illegal gill nets, but the key difference was those nets had only a couple hundred pounds of rockfish in them.
The weather is one of the major factors affecting the behavior of rockfish.
“When the water gets cold, they tend to school up into these deep channels,” Windemuth said.
This makes it easier to catch large batches of them, and they become easy prey for commercial watermen and poachers.
“The fish haven’t schooled up into these deep channels, they’re more spread out,” Windemuth said.
This plays a role in deterring poachers because they’re less likely to take a chance of doing something illegal if it’s less likely they’ll catch something substantial, Windemuth said.
In addition to discouraging poachers, the weather also affects the ability of commercial fisherman to bring in large numbers of fish.
James Manley, a private fisherman, said he has noticed the fish are more spread out. He also said the fish are swimming higher up in the water rather than grouping closer to the bottom, which makes it hard to catch them in his nets.
Manley said the lack of recent runoff from rain and snow has been a hindrance as well because the water is very clear, which helps fish see the nets more easily and avoid them.
In addition to natural factors playing into the rockfish season, the Natural Resources Police also have several new tools and technologies on their side that help monitor waterways more effectively.
Side-scan sonar, an imaging system recently installed on Natural Resources Police boats, allows officers to see objects below the water.
The side-scan sonar even has a feature to show the screen in different colors, making it easier to see certain things, depending on what officers are trying to detect.
The technology was put into use at the beginning of this gill net season, said Cpl. Roy Rafter, who said the device allows officers to detect nets below the surface of the water because they learn to recognize how the nets appear on the screen.
The boats are also equipped with a chart plotter, which shows where they are in the water and also brings up radar to show blips of anything in the water nearby.