A Bird’s Eye View on the Problems with Fisheries Enforcement

dec-meeting

John Malizia of the Natural Resources Protective Association (NRPA), Frank Crescitelli and Alan Evelyn of CCA, Captain Terrance Revella of the DEC and the Author John McMurray

Editors Note: This article first appeared in Tide Magazine, the publication of the Coastal Conservation Association prior to 9/11/01. In the post 9/11 world, the demands on the time of the US Coast Guard are even greater. Just yesterday (2/27/03) they were transferred from the Dept. of Transportation to the Dept. of Homeland Security. Their primary role has changed, leaving precious little time for fisheries enforcement. Think about that for a minute after you have read this article… Mark Cahill, Managing Editor, Reel-Time.com

Not too long ago, a friend and I were fishing in Jamaica Bay, New York, just off John F. Kennedy National Airport. It was the perfect spring morning, just warm enough to be comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt, with the water just cool enough to hold a trophy. The sun was beginning to show itself, and a dark crimson sky surrounded us like candle-lit walls. Bunker occasionally broke the glassy silence, splashing the surface in desperate attempts to avoid hungry bass and bluefish. The only noticeable sound was the subtle clicking of line being stripped off a fly reel in anticipation of a cast. I thought to myself, ‘this is very close to paradise.’

On my first cast, almost as soon as my bunker imitation hit the water, a large dorsal fin and tail surfaced next to the fly. Wit a quick, violent splash the serenity had turned into pure adrenaline-laced excitement. Line and backing screamed from the reel as I let out a whoop. Fifteen minutes later a twenty-six pound bass was netted, weighed, photographed and released. Hands were shook, pats on the back were exchanged and the smiles were uncontrollable—until the day progressed.

Both to the east and west fishermen clad in plastic overalls began to show up, ready to take advantage of the prize cows that lay right below us. Livelining bunker they had snagged, they immediately began catching 20 to 30 pound fish. My friend and I soon noticed that, despite a one bass per angler bag limit, these gentlemen were keeping every fish—five to ten prime, spawning-sized bass per boat, in the space of an hour. And such behavior was commonplace. It was not just one boat.

Seen it before…

Unfortunately, I’d seen such things before. Before taking the job of Executive Director of CCA NY, I spent four years as a Coast Guard Boarding Officer at Station New York and Station Rockaway New York. During that time, I was not only charged with enforcing federal fisheries laws, but also helping to enforce state fishing laws at the request of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and local state Environmental Conservation Officers (ECOs). (Violations of state laws were not actually enforced by the Coast Guard. Instead, violators were detained until state ECOs could arrive to deal with them.) We were tasked with that job because, unlike many other states, New York does not have designated fishery or fish and game enforcement officers. Instead, beside fisheries offenses, ECOs enforce a host of other laws ranging from the illegal selling of New Jersey-manufactured aluminum soda cans to the illegal sale of protected species in Brooklyn pet stores. In addition, because of sparse staffing, the ECOs are spread very thin.

The New York Bight, in particular, is a mecca for striped bass and blackfish (tautog) poaching because its healthy fish population is located so close to a huge human population center. The region is home to many recent immigrants from impoverished nations with subsistence fishing cultures, where the need to survive overrode the niceties of conservation. Other residents come from more affluent seafood-consuming nations, and enjoy meals at which each diner is served a whole, 12 to 15-inch fish. This creates a huge market for undersized fish, as well as for those that are larger, but harvested illegally. (Because of high levels of PCBs found in striped bass flesh, commercial fishing for bass is illegal in the Bight area.) Short blackfish bring $3.50 to $4.00 per pound, while stripers go for a bit less. During the spring and fall runs, it is easy for a single small skiff to take 300 to 500 pounds of striped bass, and it is not much more difficult to take as many blackfish on a good fall day. I’ve often seen small boats with five to seven mesh bags of blackfish or bass shamelessly lined along the deck. To people with little education and relatively low incomes, the opportunities for profit provided by poaching can be hard to resist.

Dumping the evidence

dec-meeting-2As a “Coastie,” I was often frustrated by our inability to effectively enforce fisheries laws. All too often, I saw poachers trying to avoid apprehension dump weighted bags of illegally harvested fish overboard. Such bags initially sink to the bottom where the fish, now wasted and of use to no one, rots; eventually, they are seen again as litter lining beaches after a storm.

John Malizia of the Natural Resources Protective Association (NRPA), Frank Crescitelli and Alan Evelyn of CCA, Captain Terrance Revella of the DEC and the Author John McMurray

Enforcement officials have difficulty apprehending offenders. As soon as a poacher sees the distinctive green stripe of a DEC vessel, the bright orange of a Coast Guard ridged-hull inflatable boat or the distinctive wake of a Coast Guard 41-footer, his illegal catch goes over the side. And while there is a lot of competition between the poachers themselves, there is also “honor among thieves.” Once a DEC or Coast Guard vessel appears in the vicinity and boardings begin, the word spreads very quickly.

If the Coast Guard witnesses a poacher dumping fish, a citation for pollution, impeding a boarding or several other charges might be issued. State law includes a specific anti-dumping provision. But the charges do not bring significant fines, and often the court levies no fine at all.

Enforcement officials employ various strategies to get around the dumping problem. They may wait at the poacher’s boat slip, or the place where he offloads his catch. However, that strategy usually fails—it certainly failed for me—after the offender receives a radioed warning that uniformed men are milling around his marina. The alleged poacher, when he arrives at the dock in his slime and scale-coated skiff, brazenly responds “No luck,” to the disheartened officers’ questions.

The officers can’t rely on tips, which are few and far between. This is New York City, and the poachers mean business. Anyone who chooses to impede their business is likely to find his boat burned beyond recognition. People claim to have been threatened with firearms after reporting a violation over the radio.

As a rule, local ECOs also suffer from a lack of experience. Region 2, which includes all of New York City, generally gets rookies just out of the Academy. Generally, the new officers were raised somewhere upstate. They are usually bright, idealistic and eager to protect the fish and wildlife of New York. Their starting salaries don’t go very far in the overheated downstate economy. Still, they spend two or three years learning their job. Then, at about the time they really understand what’s going on, they get a chance to or move upstate where the cost of living is far lower and they can do more of the fish and game work they signed on for. So they move on, and another rookie takes their place.

Station closings hamper efforts

Added to the problem is a recent lack of Coast Guard support. For the first two years I served in the Coast Guard, we patrolled every day. Although poaching was never eliminated, our efforts, combined with those of the DEC, kept it somewhat controlled. However, eventually we were instructed to steer away from fisheries enforcement—and some search and rescue efforts—in preparation for the near-closure of Coast Guard Station Rockaway and our total dislocation from the Jamaica Bay, Rockaway, New York Bight area.

As an angler, I saw an immediate surge in poaching. A local news station did a five-part story on the downsizing and rumored closing of Coast Guard Station Rockaway. In the section on illegal fishing, an angler (and active CCA NY member) said, “they’ve been poaching like crazy here. We have a problem with poaching anyway, and without [the Coast Guard], you give them carte blanche…” CCA NY’s Brroklyn/Queens chapter demanded that Station Rockaway remain open and, thanks to their efforts, it remains manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, it was in many ways a pyrrhic victory.

In the news broadcast about Station Rockaway, a Coast Guard commander issued a statement that presaged problems for fisheries law enforcement. He stated that, “the better spending of tax dollars went away from the more routine patrol to more of a response mode.” Under “response mode,” which is now standard operating procedure in the New York Bight, no boat gets underway except in response to a life or death situation to which no other agency can respond. Fisheries patrols are a thing of the past.

Making a differnce

Thus, poachers fill their purses at the public’s expense, with little fear of apprehension. In those rare instances when someone does get caught, the courts rarely impose fitting penalties. All too often, I’ve seen potential $20,000 fines plea bargained down to $2,000—and sometimes as little as $500. It often seems that neither side takes the process seriously. To judges and prosecutors long inured to rape, murder and felony drug arrests, a few dead fish seem hardly worth the effort of preparing a case. The poacher sees an occasional fine as the cost of doing business—and knows he can make good the loss in a day or two.

As a veteran of the poaching wars, I believe that we can solve the problem, but it will take both money and manpower. There is no question that more ECOs are needed. However, expanding the number of ECOs won’t do any good if they’re assigned to inspecting solid waste transfer sites instead of stalking professional poachers. New York must establish a unit specifically tasked to apprehending fisheries law violators. Such a unit, consisting of both undercover officers and uniformed personnel, would provide a 24-hour presence that does not exist today. Coupled with a live radio watch to answer civilian complaints in real-time—a capability that ECOs do not have today—a team of ECOs dedicated to fishery matters would, for the first time, make the poachers feel threatened and up the cost of their illegal operations.

However, the cost to the state would be substantial. Funding would have to come from somewhere. Speaking personally—CCA NY has not taken a position on the issue—I believe that such funding can only come from a salt water fishing license, the proceeds from which go into a fund dedicated to marine law enforcement. I know that the concept of a salt water license is not popular in New York, but it is time for fishermen to face reality. If we want better enforcement, we’re going to have to pay for it. That’s just the way it is.

I realize that I’m suggesting huge changes, both politically and in the way New Yorkers think about fisheries law enforcement. I know that a lot of people think they’ll never happen. But I’m not asking for anything that doesn’t already exist in other states, and I’m tired of watching our fisheries resources abused while I, along with every other conservation-minded person, stands by helplessly. The people and fisheries of New York deserve better. If we work hard enough, we can get what we deserve.

Together we can make a difference.

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Mark N. Cahill has been writing and editing for Reel-Time.com since 1995. He started fishing in the mid-1960's and caught his first striper off World's End in Hingham in 1966. From there on in it was an obsession. He loves fishing for tuna, and fly fishing for striped bass. In a pinch, anything with fins will do...

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