Striper poachers busted
There's a second article in the print edition today that indicates another bust was made on a boat with three guys from Haverhill with about 2 dozen under-sized bass. Can't seem to find that one on-line
By James J. Allen
SALISBURY — As they emerged from the tall grass onto a fishing spot on Ring's Island, environmental police officers Kevin LaPlante and Scott Maher saw dead and half-dead fish everywhere.
Dozens of undersized striped bass were strewn through the weeds, lying across rocks, floating in the water, filling buckets and bags.
"Pretty much wherever I looked, I could see undersized striped bass," said LaPlante. "The number of fish that they took showed total disregard for any sportsmanship."
The two officers discovered the illegal fishing operation at about 11 p.m. Saturday. Aided by Salisbury and state police, Maher and LaPlante charged 15 Lowell fishermen with 60 fishing and related violations carrying $5,250 in fines. Some of the fish the group took were as small as 12 inches, less than half the 28-inch legal length. Fishermen are allowed to take only two fish per day.
The men charged had not been caught before, but environmental police say the incident is likely part of a growing trend of black-market fishing gangs expanding into the lower Merrimack Valley towns.
Poachers, often from Lowell and Lawrence, are believed to be selling the fish at lucrative prices to distributors.
With crackdowns stepped up around Lawrence in recent years, police say, poachers have lately turned to smaller riverside communities, including Merrimac, West Newbury, Newburyport and Salisbury.
"As these violators are getting caught, they're pushing their activities into where they believe it's going to be much quieter for them," said Maher, who has been patrolling in the Lawrence area for the past seven years. "We're now seeing them push down as far as the mouth of the river, in Salisbury, in Newburyport and that area."
The poachers work in organized teams and often conduct counter-surveillance of police patrols by staying in radio contact, Maher said.
"There absolutely is a black market," said Maher. But the groups are difficult to infiltrate.
Locally, they've trespassed, parked illegally and trashed fishing spots in small neighborhoods, angering residents and prompting a local police response.
But foremost, they appear to have little or no respect for fishing rules and regulations, police say. Of the 38 fish police counted at Saturday night's bust, for example, one was of legal length, police said.
"There's no sport involved in these violations," said Maher.
During this year's striped bass fishing season, which runs through parts of May and June, environmental police have noted Plum Island and Deer Island as popular local fishing spots where most of the violations occurred.
When fishermen congregate in large groups, such as at the Merrimack's mouth, environmental police can depend on anglers policing themselves.
Such appears to be the case with Saturday night's bust, which was initiated on a tip from a local fisherman who complained of excessive violations off Sweet Apple Tree Lane, which winds toward the river from Ferry Road.
"The violations were such that he didn't even want to be in the area," said LaPlante.
Maher said he had regularly visited the spot, but hadn't witnessed violations there through last week. On this trip, the officers found several cars in a nearby field. They boxed them in with their truck and followed the mens' tracks down to the river. They watched them work for about 15 minutes before moving in, said Maher.
The officers split into two groups, with LaPlante going upriver to a group of five fishermen, and Maher approaching the other 10. The men would not show police their fish, would not say who caught which fish and were kicking some of the bass back into the water, LaPlante said. Some of the fish were still half-alive.
"We had some of the violators get back into the water and try to revive the fish as best they could," said LaPlante.
The men, all of Lowell, ranged in age. Most were well-dressed and "clean-cut," said LaPlante. None of the men was known to police through their records, so none was identified as black market fishermen. Had they been identified as past poachers, Maher said, the men could have faced court appearances.
The officers, later assisted by Salisbury and state police, cited each man with four violations, including possession of undersized stripped bass, exceeding the limit of two fish per person, failing to display fish when asked and violating wildlife management area regulations. Because the men were in an identified wildlife area, they were not supposed to be fishing after sunset.
The fishermen had also thrown beer bottles and trash around the fishing spot, said police.
"We had them clean up the entire area," said LaPlante.
Police seized all of the group's fishing tackle, including rods, reels, lures, tackle boxes and storage coolers. Maher, noting prior experience, said the equipment is easily replaced.
"It's obviously a lucrative enough market where they can afford taking these risks and getting caught," he said.