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A Boatload of Poaching Legislation in the House and Senate

Lawmakers rush to address issue may be leading to more problems.

A bevy of poaching bills is making its way through the House 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 O'Donnell (R-Calvert) at Friday's Environmental Matters Committee meeting about a bill that would create enhanced 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 more severe 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 with a unanimous vote on 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 bill sponsors agree on the best course of action.

In the case of the "kingpin poaching" bill, its sponsor, Del. Herbert McMillan (R-Annapolis) voted in committee to oppose a different poaching bill that would create enhanced penalties for oyster poachers. McMillan said he believes it was too narrowly written and the penalties too harsh, with a higher fine than his own "kingpin" bill.

The debate inside the Environmental Matters Committee Friday showed the confusion some lawmakers feel about which bill does what, prompting the chairman 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 some said they 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 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."

Among the poaching bills being considered:

  • HB273 would mainly allow fishing license revocation if oysters are poached out-of-season. Cross-filed with SB159.
  • HB396 would repeal the hearing requirement before a fishing license can be suspended or revoked. Cross-filed with SB414.
  • HB1154 would allow the DNR to revoke or suspend a license more quickly if poachers are caught taking crabs or striped bass. Cross-filed with SB635.
  • HB1225 would increase potential poaching fines and penalties for any commercial fishermen. Cross-filed with SB655.
  • HB1252 is the "kingpin poaching" bill that adds more jail time to a list of punishments for striped bass poachers.
  • HB1340 would add license revocation for poaching as well as limiting sanctuary size in the state. This bill has been re-referred to Environmental Matters. Cross-filed with SB538.

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