DNR head comments on use of tracking devices
The secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources told state legislators Friday that his agency has done nothing illegal while investigating poachers on the Eastern Shore.
At least six Dorchester County watermen reported finding tracking devices on their boats in January. Some of the watermen who found the devices have prior poaching convictions and have said they suspect the department of secretly following their movements.
Several have contacted lawyers and the mystery has sparked concern among watermen across the region.
However, DNR Secretary John R. Griffin told state legislators from Maryland's Eastern Shore on Friday that using tracking devices to investigate repeat offenders is allowable when officers have probable cause.
"We're not talking about Big Brother, with all due respect," he said Friday. "We're talking about habitual offenders who steal from the public's trust, and somehow we've got to stop it."
The discovery of the devices also came just days and weeks before investigators with the Department of Natural Resources discovered about 10 tons of poached rockfish, also known as striped bass, trapped in nets on the floor of the Chesapeake Bay near Kent Island.
As a result of that discovery, the department announced Friday that it would be closing the gill net fishing season early over concerns that the rockfish population is nearing its commercial fishing quota for the month.
"It's taken some of the quota away from the honest fishermen," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "So they're stealing from the other fishermen is what it amounts to."
But while watermen say they want the poachers caught and penalized, some have said they're equally concerned about the methods potentially being used by investigators.
Talbot County Watermen's Association President Bunky Chance said most watermen don't like the idea of officers secretly installing devices on their boats.
"To us, such a violation is the whole concept of government intrusion," he said. "Five years ago, nobody would have dreamed about the DNR would have done something like this. What's it going to be five years from now if we don't stop this?"
On Friday, Delegate Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil, asked Griffin if department officials went before a judge to obtain court orders for all the devices found on the boats.
Griffin responded that all proper legal actions were taken.
Sgt. Art Windemuth, a spokesman for the department, offered similar assurances Thursday.
"If a technique requires a court order to employ, we use it to employ," he said. "When we employ techniques, we use a court order."
Yet, one of the watermen who reported finding one of the tracking devices says DNR Police harassed him less than 24 hours after he went public with the discovery.
"Yesterday morning, I went to go fishing and they pulled me over," Madison waterman Dean Price said Thursday. "They said the reason was because I was using my spotlight. To my knowledge, there is no law that says I can't use my spotlight in the morning when I am sailing in the dark."
State Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Mid Shore, said he does not believe the use of tracking devices is nearly as effective as an increase in manpower would be. He said the Chesapeake Bay is large and needs to be patrolled by more officers.
"You're not going to get any enforcement out there until you get officers to patrol the Bay," he said.
Windemuth said the agency has 151 field officers in the state, with 17 covering Dorchester, Talbot, Kent and Queen Anne's counties.
Griffin said 500 officers would not be enough, adding that his agency instead tries to use what he referred to as "force multipliers."
Griffin also said resources in the Bay are declining and it is his department's responsibility to deal with dwindling crab and oyster populations.
"We're trying to look at the long term here for those resources and do so in a way that watermen will be with us, hopefully, for generations to come," he said.
Smigiel asked if DNR's stringent polices might be adding to the economic pressure felt by watermen desperate to survive despite policies that are putting them out of business.
"I think the economy and recession has placed an extra burden on everyone, including watermen and their families," Griffin said.