While conservation groups typically stick to advocating for policy and regulatory changes, a few Maryland organizations recently found themselves playing an unusual role in helping investigators solve the biggest illegal poaching case on the Chesapeake Bay in 25 years.
Earlier this month, the Chesapeake BaySavers Association donated its pledged $10,000 portion of the $20,000 reward that the Natural Resources Police had offered in 2011 to aid in the search and arrest of fishermen involved in a four-year commercial rockfish operation that illegally pulled more than 92 tons of striped bass out of the Bay.
“We were not involved in the investigation itself. When the poaching investigation began to stall, we put up the reward to help the Natural Resources Police and aid in their investigation,” said Evan Thalenberg, the Annapolis-based nonprofit group’s board president and founder. “We’re always looking for ways to help them do their work.”
Other nonprofit organizations, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Coastal Conservation Association Maryland and Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association as well as private citizens also pledged to donate, recognizing the damage illegal poaching causes for recreational and commercial fishermen in addition to rockfish populations.
“Normally, any kind of poaching that exists on this level we find out about it when the arrests are made. This one was like, ‘Oh, my God, this happened: Who did it?’” said Tony Friedrich, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association in Maryland, which donated $1,000 toward the cause.
The police department has received $18,400 of the pledged amount raised for informants who helped on this particular case, said Candy Thomson, public information officer for the Natural Resources Police. That amount includes $5,000 from the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Once all of the pledged money is received, the Natural Resources Police rewards committee will reconvene to decide how much money to give each of its tipsters, Thomson said.
In February 2011, three weeks before the end of the commercial rockfish fishing season, the state’s Natural Resources Police found illegally placed gill netting stretching almost the entire width of the Chesapeake Bay near Kent Island.
More than 12 tons of rockfish were caught in the netting. Nervous about exceeding the monthly harvesting limit, Department of Natural Resources officials cut the commercial fishing season short to reduce further damage to the local rockfish and to look for those responsible.
When the investigations stalled, the Natural Resources Police offered an initial reward of $5,000 for anyone who would come forward with helpful information. Initially, there was little response. But environmentalists and conservationists heard about the investigation, and they wanted to help.
“Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, BaySavers, Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association all came up with money to sweeten the pot, as it were, so that we could maybe entice people who would otherwise be reluctant to tell us what was going on, to speed our investigation and make our case,” Thomson said. “They came to us and said, ‘This is hurting the bay, this is hurting all of us, and we would like to make a contribution to your reward fund.’ It was nice to know that they had our backs.”
‘Jewelry on the counter’
For Thalenberg, the case marked his organization’s first involvement in helping to fund a particular case’s reward, but it reinforced the mission of his organization in aiding in enforcement efforts.
“Taxpayers spend a lot of money trying to restore the bay. If there’s no enforcement, it’s like leaving jewelry on the counter with the door open — that’s the taxpayers’ money going straight out the window,” he said. “It’s not only an environmental issue, it’s an economic issue.”
With the higher incentive, informants came forward with tips regarding whom to look for and where to look, Thomson said, helping the federal and local investigators to hone in on the culprits.
Four fishermen involved in the illegal poaching practices plead guilty in federal court and were sentenced separately between December 2014 and February 2015.