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Volume XVII, Issue 11 - March 12 - March 18, 2009
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When a plane or helicopter appears out of nowhere,
a poacher has little time to conceal illegal activity.

Wasps, Hornets and Flies

To catch the big guys, Natural Resources Police need a sticky web

Laws are like cobwebs,
which may catch small flies,
but let wasps and hornets fly through.

–Jonathan Swift: “A Critical Essay Upon the Faculties of the Mind,” 1707

This time, a fairly big batch of wasps and hornets appears caught in a bigger and sturdier web. The alleged crime: Big and illegal hauls of rockfish in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

Thus far, many of the shenanigans remain under wraps. We know only that the wasps and hornets include watermen, wholesalers, retailers and even some restaurateurs who deal in seafood. Some names and citations have popped up here ’n’ there, but I’m told from behind the scene much more is yet to come. Undercover work is excruciatingly slow in an operation of such magnitude.

The probe involves not only state enforcers but also agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When the feds become involved, convictions usually bring much stiffer consequences. We’ve heard talk that involved could be millions of dollars, and in prosecutions of such extent federal judges seem to have an unwritten rule: If you’re guilty, you’d better bring your shaving kit and have your affairs in order. You’re not going home for a long time.

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is among the regulators observing developments closely. Depending on how many fish are considered taken in the operation, the commercial fishery could take a big hit in catch quotas. Paybacks can be hell.


Yet even now, legislators are considering slashing Natural Resources Police budgets. How I wish our solons in the General Assembly would re-read that portion of the Report of the Task Force on Fishery Management pertaining to the sad state of current budgeting. Mandated by legislators and issued in December, the report claims our Natural Resources Police are understaffed and underequipped.

Staff is only half what it was in 1990, with 55 vacancies and 225 positions making an authorized roster of only 280. Moreover, there is “no predictable or dedicated funding for NRP equipment needs.” Ninety seven percent of the force’s large-vessel fleet is 15 years old or older; 60 percent of the small-boat fleet is more than 10 years old.

In addition, the force’s only fixed-wing aircraft is an antique that’s been out of service for three years. Two helicopters are from the 1970s and need replacing. It looks like legislators may insist Natural Resources Police depend on State Police helicopters, which brings up priorities, scheduling and experience in pursuing natural resources enforcement.

And another vital tool in patrolling our natural resources via emergency radio system will be shut down by the Federal Communication Commission in 2013. Replacing it will take at least four years and $1.6 million, the Task Force report says.

Methinks our fine, dedicated and overworked Natural Resources Police officers are handcuffed in their pursuits by stingy legislators.

Meanwhile, the poachers have all the best and latest equipment in electronics for finding and catching fish and monitoring enforcement. Some have newer and faster boats.

Ky Tyler’s Lesson

The element of surprise helps the Natural Resources Police sometimes get the upper hand.

When a plane or helicopter appears out of nowhere, a poacher has little time to conceal illegal activity, certainly less time than when a police boat appears on the horizon. The very possibility of air patrols is a deterrent.

Which reminds me of a story told many times by late waterman and seafood entrepreneur Ky Tyler of Crisfield. Waterfowl were out of season, but he was just back from a long overseas stay involving combat in World War II. And he wanted so badly to go duck hunting, which he had missed for years in the army.

He purchased a fine new shotgun and took to a blind at Tangier Sound. While waiting for fowl, he observed a light aircraft making passes in the distance. Having heard that the feds had begun patrols via small fixed-wing craft, he became concerned, and as the plane headed his way, he tossed his brand new shotgun and shells into the brine. He said he’d learned his lesson.

As the plane flew by, he made out the words U.S. Mail on the fuselage. There was no way he could retrieve the shotgun that day, for the waters were too deep and cold. Then a big nor’easter came, and the weapon was covered with sand and grit never to be recovered.

Let’s hope our legislators will learn one lesson promptly from the Task Force report they mandated. Within a half-inch of pages, there’s some pretty impressive stuff about the necessity of beefing up enforcement of natural resource laws and regulations on all levels — if we are to save those resources.

Enough said.


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