Thursday, December 29, 2011
Bill Cochran's Outdoors: Authorities cracking down on illegal striped bass fishing
Bill Cochran's Outdoors
- Virginia’s hunting totals produce mixed results
- A good trade: Virginia trout for Kentucky elk
- Forget the odds-makers; Salem’s John Crews believes he can win the Bassmaster Classic.
- The good and bad of the 2012 saltwater fishing season
- Column archive
Bill's Field Reports
- Virginia General Assembly goes soft on outdoor issues
- Quail Unlimited calls it quits
- Field reports archive
A woman from Orange County has been caught up in a federal/state probe to determine if certain charter boats have been fishing illegally for striped bass in restricted federal water along the Virginia coast.
Each December, schools of trophy stripers, on a north-south migration, enter Virginia water and hang around into February, offering fantastic fishing. You legally can fish for them up to three miles offshore. Beyond that is federal water where it is unlawful to target or possess these fish.
The dividing line is invisible--no chalk line; no blaze orange flagging; no yellow speed bump--just the churning ocean looking exactly the same on both sides. It is called the “exclusive economic zone” or EEZ and is designed to protect the striper breeding stock from being over fished.
Problems occur when anglers ease past the line unintentionally or on purpose. It happens most often when stripers are difficult to locate inside the EEZ line, yet just beyond it there are hundreds of them splashing water high as August corn while tearing into baitfish with clouds of gulls and terns screeching and diving overhead.
You have two choices: Mash the throttle of your boat toward the action or stay put and go fishless. The latter requires a heavy dose of willpower.
Back to judicial timeline on the woman from Orange County:
- On Feb. 12 she was fishing aboard a charter boat out of Virginia Beach.
- On May 10 she was questioned in Fredericksburg about what she saw aboard the boat. She said the charter was after bluefish and did not target stripers in federal water. The captain had ordered his customers to throw back any stripers incidentally caught. None was kept, she said.
- On Nov. 22 she pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to submitting false information to federal and state investigators probing alleged violations of charter boat operators. Part of her plea agreement is to pay a $1,000 fine, perform 100 hours of community service and be placed on supervised probation for a year.
What enforcement authorities have done is fire a warning shot across the bow of Virginia’s 2012 winter saltwater striped bass season. The message: “Stay within the EEZ line or else!”
My sources say there is more involved than an occasional recreational angler straying across the EEZ line or a charter boat skipper being over-exuberant in his quest to find fish for his clients. Limits are being exceeded and fish are being transported across state lines and sold in violation of the Lacy Act. The U.S. Coast Guard boarded one craft last season and found 58 illegally caught stripers.
Investigators have committed big money and innovative detection devices in an effort to put a stop to the infractions. Some serious violators could get jail time. The story is getting close to becoming front-page news.
You’d think it would be easy to catch people fishing past the EEZ line. Just send some marine police out to pick them off. But violators often keep their catch in 55-gallon trash cans, called “dump buckets.” These are heaved overboard if an enforcement boat approaches. Lacking the goods, violators simply can say they were fishing for bluefish.
In the minds of some people, the solution is to get rid of the EEZ line. Money being spent on enforcement is out of portion to the good being accomplished, they say. The federal law is unfair to Virginia anglers, they claim, because migrating stripers are hit hard within the EEZ line in states to the north.
Others say we need to protect this great resource, considering than in a few months the stripers will reverse their course and head toward their spawning grounds. The EEZ zone has been in place since 1990 as part of the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act.
The offshore winter striper fishing traditionally begins in earnest each January, following the Dec. 31 closing of the Chesapeake Bay season. The Bay fishing got off to a slow start this year, but has picked up the last week or so.
There is a mass of stripers reported to the north of Virginia and warm temperatures could put many of them on the wrong side of the EEZ line, and some fishermen on the wrong side of the law.
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