Candice Thompson - Baltimore Sun
Add another room to the wood shed. Oil the spanking machine. Make the corner a little bit bigger.
The Department of Natural Resources, with the blessing of the General Assembly, is rolling out a set of penalties to punish rogue watermen who repeatedly thumb their noses at the rules.
The first hearing was last Thursday on the Eastern Shore. The second one is 6 p.m. Wednesday at DNR's Annapolis headquarters.
The back story is simple. In 2008, 43 percent of the 3,940 active watermen were given a ticket for violating the law, according to state records.
But the penalty system used to punish the worst and the repeat offenders is as gentle as a summer breeze. For the most part, DNR is prevented from suspending a waterman's license unless he or she has been convicted of at least three violations on separate days in a two-year period.
Run some names through the Maryland Judicial Case Search and you'll see that some of the worst offenders work the game clock like Joe Montana ran the two-minute drill.
Fed up with the nonsense, Dels. Dan Morhaim and Stephen Lafferty of Baltimore County sponsored the bill that ordered DNR to make changes.
"It's pretty clear that if we take from nature faster than nature can replenish itself, we're spending nature's capital, not just the interest," says Morhaim, the House deputy majority leader and a doctor. "When you hear about these cases, it's outrageous."
The bill was approved unanimously by the House and Senate.
Frank Dawson, assistant DNR secretary for fisheries, says a beefing up of the penalties for recreational rogues will be proposed for the 2011 legislative session.
The new system, which takes effect Feb. 22, consists of three tiers.
The lowest level assesses a five-point penalty but no suspension for basic violations of state fisheries law, say, failure to remove crab pots at the end of a season.
The middle tier covers violations that harm a fragile fishery or demonstrate a disregard for the law, such as catching American shad or harvesting oysters from an aquaculture zone. The guilty will receive 10 points and a suspension of up to 30 days.
Watermen whose actions significantly harm the fishery or demonstrate a willful intent to break the law - think the striped bass poaching ring on the Potomac - receive 15 points and a suspension of up to 60 days.
Racking up points for multiple convictions in any two-year period will make violators subject to longer suspensions and eventual license revocation.
Dawson says the advisory group that helped devise the penalty system was careful to make distinctions between mistakes made while fishing "versus harvesting oysters from a sanctuary on Christmas night, where there's obvious intent."
Maryland's watermen insist they're good guys who have gotten a black eye because of a few bad actors.
"Fair enough," says Dawson, adding, "If you're abiding by the law in your day-to-day activities ... I think the severity of these penalties won't be problematic."
But in his column in the monthly Waterman's Gazette, Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, calls the new point system "pretty harsh" and complains that although he sat on the advisory board that built the penalty chart, "I can tell you it was all but impossible to get them to cut back."
The public has grown tired of bandits making a career of stealing our fish, crabs and oysters and getting off with $50 fines. Poachers are in the cross hairs of state lawmakers, law enforcement officers and judges.
"If we take small steps together," Morhaim says, "we can make progress."
Why would anyone want to retreat?