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PRFC increases poaching fines and protective measures

Posted on Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 1:38 pm

By Susan Pietras-Smith

The Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which operates under the Potomac River Compact of 1958, held its quarterly meeting on November 30 at the PRFC building in Colonial Beach. Regulations discussed included two crab pot licenses being allowed to operate on one pot, season dates and restrictions for fish.

Kirby A. Carpenter, Executive Secretary for the PRFC, thanked the commission for the ability to use funds at staff discretion. Following Hurricane Sandy in October, Piney Point Oyster Hatchery came to the PRFC after a power loss threatened the lives of diploid oyster spats, baby oysters that are capable of reproducing.

The diploids could not be maintained, so Piney Point gave them to the PRFC who worked with oyster men to transplant them to Gum Bar Point in Virginia. The PRFC gave the oyster men funds to cover fuel costs. These oysters could grow to harvest size in three to four years.

Another  point of discussion was the “Rotational Natural Oyster Harvest Plan” (RNOHP), designed to plant diploid oysters on five oyster bars in the Middle River area of the Potomac, at Swan Point, Cedar Point, Yates Bar, Stony Point and Gum Bar. Each bar will be planted for one year, then allowed to grow for four years prior to being harvested.

All bars remain open to oystering until the planting of the diploids is done, then they are closed for their four year growth period. The bars will be opened for harvest of approximately 65-70 percent of market oysters in each bar. The Commission is providing $50,000 seed money for the first four years of this program. Currently there is a $300 oyster license surcharge fee required of everyone who purchases an oyster license. This money, along with funds from Commercial License registration, and tags from the future harvest of these oysters will be directed toward the program.

“This river is our life; it is our heritage,” said John Tucker Brown of the Oyster/Clam Advisory Committee in support for the RNOHP.

“The old timers told us we’d have to fight for this river some day, and they were right. This was not a scientist [talking]. But something is going on here.” The area has recently seen higher rates of disease among oysters and fewer bushels produced.

The PRFC faces the need for a tax increase on bushels of oysters. Presently, the tax is one dollar per bushel, an amount set with the original Compact in 1958. Both Virginia and Maryland must approve any tax increase through legislation. The PRFC is also asking for an increase in penalties for poaching in the Potomac, which involves the same process.

John Wood Jr., of Maryland House of Delegates, was the sole member of either legislature in attendance. He asked for assurance that any increase in taxes or penalties would go to the PRFC and not to Maryland or Virginia’s coffers. Upon assurance that the monies go straight to the PRFC, Wood agreed to an increase of taxes and penalties.

Penalties for poaching increase to a maximum of $1,000 a figure set in 1958. Brown asked that penalties be changed to include a fine and restitution, not just a flat amount. PRFC directed staff to work on this so it could be introduced to both Houses at their next session in 2013.

Early numbers for November’s oyster harvest were given as 369 bushels to date with a total of 55 personal licenses, and 31 vessel licenses sold. Crab numbers were given as 1,500 bushels of hard cabs for November with 13,237 pots set. These numbers were done from the average of 4,071 for November, but likely did not include the entire month’s catch. For 2012 80,567 bushels were harvested; down from the average of 111,912 bushels over the past 26 years.

The 2012-2013 gill net and commercial Striped Bass season began November 12 and runs through March 25. Striped bass are set at a minimum of 18 inches in length all season, with a maximum length of 36 inches from February 15 to March 25.