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What’s Changed for 2019 with Marine Fisheries Statutes

Phil Coates

Retired Director Of Mass DMF

As we descend into the depths of winter, I’m sure many of you are reflecting on last year’s fishing, and wondering what 2019 has in store for us.  

The inevitable issue of enforcement of marine fisheries statutes and regulations, given the recent extensive poaching that’s gone on in recent years, is an issue of concern to many of My Fishing Cape Cod's members.  

I thought it appropriate (in case you haven’t heard) to summarize the recent changes, as well as review the other enforcement tools available to regulators and enforcers.  

Although this update hopefully covers most of the bases, those who wish to learn more information are urged to visit the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) website.

More...

When encountering a scenario where marine fisheries rules or statutes are being violated, the Environmental Police have a number of options ranging from verbal and written warnings and non-criminal citations to arrest, depending primarily on the severity of the violation(s) as well as other factors.

The non-criminal citation is primarily used for minor violations and has three tiers of fines linked to the particular reg or statute being violated. These tiers and the statutes and regs assigned to them have been around for many years and haven’t changed much, except the fines were doubled across the board when the 2018 climate change legislation was signed into law by Governor Baker.  

Increased Fines Now In Effect


Striped bass violations are in the middle tier, and have increased from $100 to $200. Although I’m sure many of you feel that striped bass violations should result in public floggings or worse.

The framers of this ranking reserved the highest tier, with the fine increasing from $200 to $400, to spillers of raw sewage and/or oil into coastal waters, shellfish harvesting from contaminated water, etc. There are always extenuating circumstances, but obviously these violations usually receive more severe criminal attention.

You may ask if there is a limit to how many non-criminal citations can be issued to the same individual and whether there is an escalating degree of severity for subsequent violations.  One retired Environmental Police Captain told me he recalled one non-criminal citation per year limit, but doesn’t know if that policy is still in effect. I’ll check on this further. I’ve also been told that there is a record of issued non-criminal citations.  

Another new provision of the 2018 law is the establishment of a fine per illegal fish of $10. I know, $10 for an illegal striper? That’s ridiculous. This is a statutorily imposed fine, so changes must be and will likely be addressed through the Legislature in the future.  

Bridging the gap between non-criminal fines and criminal prosecutions is the newly enacted civil penalty of up to $10,000 which is handled by the Attorney General to address serious violations. This is significantly more than the “cost of doing business” that the poachers are so prone to react to when assessed non-criminally and should serve as a strong deterrent.  

Moving into the arena of criminal violations, an officer(s) can issue a court summons to violators or in severe cases, arrest them. Most minor violators cited criminally are summonsed into court and receive a fine. Remember, criminal violations are under the jurisdiction of the Courts with all their issues.

I don’t want to dwell on how fish and game violations fare in the courts other than to say there is an enormous range of outcomes from very positive to extremely frustrating. It’s a situation that needs to be addressed but more appropriately in a broader forum than here.   

There is a sleeper provision in the newly enacted law that you should be aware of. The mishmash of criminal penalty schedules throughout Marine Fisheries Laws in Chapter 130 were overhauled and simplified. Severe violators will now face fines ranging from $400-$10,000 and up to 2 ½ years in jail.  

Seizures Of Equipment


Any and all equipment in the possession of violators when cited can be seized by the EPO(s). If the court proceedings end up in a guilty verdict, the seized equipment can be sold or otherwise disposed of.  

Seizure of illegal fish is a common occurrence, and given their perishability they are disposed of quickly. Cars, trucks, boats, rods and reels, etc. pose a challenge because they have to be safely secured. I believe the Environmental Police have storage facilities and enclosures for that purpose. 

I’m sure some of you recall the recent case of a poacher who was caught in the Canal with illegal bass.

The EPOs seized his Shimano Stella Reel and Lamiglass custom rod but had to return them when the charges against him in Court were inexplicably dropped. He did get his gear back but subsequent actions by the EPOs and DMF more than made up for that temporary setback which serves as a segue to introduce the last and very significant tool in the enforcement box. 

Loss Of Right To Fish


In my experience, most fishermen, recreational and commercial, greatly fear the loss of their right to fish through permit sanction. The adjudicatory hearing process empowers the Division with the power to suspend, revoke, condition, not renew or deny transfer of violator’s fishing permit(s).  

Egregious violators can be summoned before an impartial magistrate for a hearing and who, after hearing the evidence brought by the Division, Environmental Police and the violator, will decide on an outcome.  

Recently DMF, Law Enforcement and the Dept. of Fish and Game have ramped up this process. Two noteworthy decisions come to mind...

  • A few years back, an out of state fisherman was banned for life from fishing in Massachusetts after being nabbed transporting Block Island striped bass into Massachusetts.   
  • The aforementioned violator who walked out of the court with his Shimano Stella and Lamiglas custom rod now has to wait three years to use it, because his recreational and commercial permits have been taken away from him for the next three years.

In Conclusion


The effectiveness of the above enforcement actions is dependent on sufficient and efficient deployment of manpower. The Environmental Police have been severely criticized for not getting the job done. The rank and file field officers have borne a major part of this criticism, but the problems for the most part go way beyond their pay grades.

The agency has been severely understaffed, up to 50% in recent years. This is being partially addressed with a number of newly hired officers undergoing training for near future deployment.  

The top leadership of the Environmental Police has been deplorable with two political hacks having been appointed as Colonel for the past twelve years. Fortunately, this is changing with the removal of the latest hack and the installation of a career EP Captain into the Acting Colonel slot. There are other problems besetting the Environmental Police that will need Legislative remedy, but positive things are happening.  

Most importantly, if you witness a violation-CALL IT INTO THE HOTLINE.

1-800-632-8075  

If you see an EPO, introduce yourself and discuss what you’ve witnessed. I have the cell numbers of at least a dozen officers who’ve urged me to give them a call with intel. Sure, you’re not going to reach them every time and, yes, sometimes the hotline doesn’t respond, but don’t give up - that’s what the poachers hope for.

Keep the faith 🎣

Phil

What do you think?

Let me know by commenting below.

  1. Phil, Thanks for all the info and also thanks to all th responders. Great info. The EPO phone number will be in my cell.

    Reply
    1. Thank you Steve. In addition to the hotline engage with any EPOs you encounter and they will often give you their cell #s for more expedient response.

      Reply
  2. Hi Phil, It’s nice to know you’re still engaged! While this topic is primarily canal/striper related you have shed some light on a related topic: Unqualified EPO’s.
    Here in SE Mass I’ve been interacting with enforcement for 41 years. The decline has been steep in say the last 15 years in my opinion, and as you note, has come from the top down. Recently I’ve encountered an EPO who was a super helpful friendly cell# sharing guy.
    Also I encountered another who was openly hostile and super unfriendly. That and a few previous experiences have led me to conclude that I’m not on the same team with them and personally have little in common. Clearly the recent hires I‘ve encountered have virtually no outdoor background and are simply civil service former military hires. A sad state of affairs.

    Reply
    1. Hi JC A couple of things. I caught my first Cape Cod and Canal stripers in the spring of 1965 after taking a entry level biologist position with DMF. I recall a game warden by the name of Bill Madden, I think. My colleagues advised me to toe the line because at any time and any place Bill might appear. Stories abound about Bill’s exploits but his position was that you put in the time to finish the job. I think this was before Law Enforcement was unionized. A number of other things now make an EPO’s job more difficult but on the positive side, since the Weld Administration, the entrance qualifications require at least a high school diploma and, more importantly, at least two years experience in an environmental field of management or conservation enforcement or have an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in a science related field. Yes, many EPO’s are veterans but the Environmental Police are still under Civil Service and applicants have to pass an exam to get on the list from which they are hired. Qualified veterans go to the top of the list but they still have to meet the entrance requirements.
      Like yourself, I’ve seen a significant range of EPO persona and performance over the years. Not counting my long professional relationship with the Environmental Police, since I’ve retired my interactions with the EPOs has been for the most part positive. Most of the young officers are not aware of my background as I’ve been retired since 2000 so I’m just another fisherman at first encounter. I don’t have to remind you of the old adage about apples in a barrel but hopefully things are trending upwards given new hires, new professional leadership and growing awareness by the hierarchy of the importance of “game wardens”.
      Thanks for your comment

      Reply
  3. Phil, great article. I’m curious — how much would it cost to fund an EPO officer dedicated to the canal? I presume you might know the all-in cost given your former position at the DMF.

    There’s a lot of members on this site; if the price was manageable (and it was politically feasible) it might be possible to crowd-fund such a thing.

    And who knows — maybe there’s a deep-pocketed fisherman out there who might have the interest and means to establish an endowment to support this on an ongoing basis.

    Reply
    1. Hi Chis,
      According to Google, the average salary for an Environmental Police Officer, including sergeants and lieutenants was just over $70K. The officers can work details but I don’t know anything about what that entails so I don’t know if off-duty officers could be hired to work a detail for something like Canal patrolling. I know they do road details and they are hired by the fresh water bass clubs to monitor their tournaments.
      In my opinion the best solution to the Canal and other problems, is sufficient new manpower to create a deterrent to poaching. I know for a fact that 10 new officers are being hired and possibly 2 more. The Powers that be are working hard to increase budget and staffing for the Environmental Police. These new hires won’t likely be adding much to the Canal needs this season since they need variable levels of training, depending on what they bring with them at hire. It’s a start, however, and I’ll check about a feasibility of a detail to patrol the Canal.
      Other options might be a state contract with the Corps of Engineers to deploy fishing patrols. These folks are around and they have arrest and citation powers. I have personal experience (not as a poacher) with a Corps officer who was the only person to respond when we observed a group of poachers robbing our Canal lobster pots. He came barreling down the access road shined them with his spotlight and ordered them to climb up the bank. We helped him list the violations and he collected their IDs and turned everything over to the Environmental Police who issued summonses and handled the Court hearing where they were fined $360 and prohibited from obtaining licenses or several years (they didn’t have any when cited).
      The Dept. of Conservation and Recreation also has agents who might be available in the Scusset area through contract/agreement.
      The Environmental Police can also hire Deputy Officers although I’m not aware of any being hired recently. Several DMF staff were also Deputy EPOS back in the day.

      Reply
  4. That news is a good step in the right direction, especially the Colonel’s position with a EPC at the helm.

    Reply
  5. Phil. thanks for the update that brings the issues front and center. Unfortunately, the upper managers that can work to support the on the ground officers and impose fines that will have an effect are influenced by politics. It’s frustrating but taking any steps forward and not giving up is the only way we will see change.

    Reply
    1. Ron,
      Sorry for this late response to your comment. Actually the upper managers you referred to are working hard to buttress the Environmental Police. Both the Secretary of Environmental Affairs and the Commissioner of the Dept. of Fish and Game lobbied hard and were successful in getting the EP funding increased for this fiscal year’s budget (2019) which has resulted in the hiring of at least 10 new officers. These new hires will undergo training and will be in the field late this year. This won’t help the current situation, unfortunately, but certainly is a major step. I’m told they are hoping for a similar addition for next year’s budget so lobby your legislator(s) to support increased funding for the Environmental Police. It’s one thing we can all do.

      Reply
  6. thank you for sharing thoughts and intel.

    Reply
    1. Thanks Doug, fisheries management and enforcement are topics we can all relate to.

      Reply
  7. I read this and see low fines, low prosecutions, no gear ultimately being lost, but we understand how much you all care….Will any of this change the behavior we all witness? The stripers being sold at the sandwich bulkhead under the table by the “commercial guys”? Or even better, the guys that take cash and let someone else reel in the last 10 feet of line and allow them to keep “their fish”? Storing fish in the rocks, and cars. Keeping a fish in the morning and coming back at night? I’m not too optimistic based on this blog. I witness poaching almost every time I go to any popular fishing spots and I call every time, you should too. Get license plate numbers, get names and descriptions. Those of us that actually care can do more to prevent this than the EP’s can. Sorry for the rant.

    Reply
    1. Jeff, you sound like my son, a far more avid and active fisherman than I; who, like you, has observed what’s going on in the Canal. You’re comments were hardly a rant and I understand your frustration. May I suggest a couple of things. Try keeping a log of your hotline calls and responses. I’ve gotten varied results when I’ve called ranging from no responses to callbacks by EPOs within an hour. If we can get a number of fishers to keep logs, I’m willing to summarize and present the results to the powers that be. Secondly, reach out to the EPOs you see and you’ll find that often they’ll give you their cell phone # which can significantly expedite the complaint process. A lot of the non- response problem is due to the unavailability of close by officers because they’re responding to another problem. Also, the currently depleted EPO workforce doesn’t help things but that’s an issue we collectively can weigh in on and I’m heartened by the info that several new hires are in training. Thanks for your “rant”

      Reply
      1. Thanks for the response Phil, let me clarify to say that when I call the EPO’s they are very responsive and I have been impressed by their follow up. Even calling me back to tell me the results at time. I just feel there is too much poaching and not enough of them to keep up with it all. It isn’t their fault, it is our fault as the anglers and the politicians who make the rules to lenient to deter the behavior. We have the science to do what is right in the fishery and it is basically ignored. Thanks again for your post.

        Reply
        1. Hi Jeff,
          Glad you’re interacting with the EPOs and are getting responses to your calls. As I mentioned in my post, the EPOs are severely understaffed but a number of new officers have been hired and are undergoing training. It’s a travesty that their staffing was allowed to reach such low levels and reflects badly on the past two administrations who installed political hacks in the Environmental Police directorship who did nothing to help the agency Fortunately the current administration has hopefully awakened to the Environmental Police problem; has gotten rid of the latest hack and installed a professional EP Captain in the Acting Colonel slot. That’s a start but much more needs to be done which I’ll try to outline in a near future post. As I mentioned in my posts some of these changes will have to be accomplished through legislation but with strong support from the fishing constituency, I’m confident some of these changes can be made.

          Reply
  8. Thanks for the info, every encounter with the EPO that I have had down the canal was been very negative, being an honest fisherman and in law enforcement for over 30 years I am very surprised of how rude the EPO has spoken to me. I will never call them or ask for their help.

    Reply
    1. Hi GL,
      Thanks for you response and I’m sorry to hear of your negative encounters with the EPOs in the Canal. Just out of curiosity, how many times have you encountered them?

      Reply
      1. 3 and all 3 times they new that I was a cop and had a mutual friend of there’s in my police academy way back in the 80’s. I feel that the honest guys are an easy and safe encounter but they don’t have to be rude. Can’t wait to repay the professional Courtesy with a speeding ticket.

        Reply
  9. Thank you Phil. You still GOT IT. See you on the bay soon.

    Reply
    1. Hi Jake: you’re welcome and am looking forward to being on the water this year.

      Reply
  10. Phil,
    Thank you for the valuable update information. Please continue to
    keep us informed in this area in the same open and clear manner.
    We all need to be part of the solution.

    Reply
    1. Ron: good morning and you’re welcome. Although I’m directly out of the game, I try to keep informed and am very passionate about improving the enforceability of fisheries laws and regulations. More to come.

      Reply
  11. Phil,
    Thank you for your honest article and for your service. A lot of us feel an intense frustration as we see increasing abuses of our natural resources. I believe that MFCC could develop into a group with political influence similar to what Stripers Unlimited was able to accomplish in the 1980’s. Any recommendations as how to start that process?

    Reply
    1. Hi Dex,
      Your welcome and as the first to respond to this post, I want to get back to you lest you think I’m avoiding you. I just want to talk to Ryan before I respond because you raised an issue that requires his input.

      Reply
      1. Hi Dex,
        Getting back to you. I certainly can’t speak for Ryan regarding future direction of MFCC but I believe he created this great little site for the primary purposes of bringing together thoughtful fishers to exchange information, to educate new entrants into fishing and to introduce new ideas and information. I sense he’s made an effort to avoid excessive controversy with it’s attendant polarization. There are plenty of other sites for that kind of format, replete with name calling and personal attacks and members who derive satisfaction from creating friction and controversy.

        I realize it’s almost impossible to discuss striped bass without controversy and the issue of allocation is extremely controversial. That’s why I’ not a big fan of organizations like Stripers Forever whose stated goal is the reallocation of striped bass.
        I am, however, a big fan of one allocation objective, to do what we can to reallocate illegally harvested striped to legitimate harvesters and fishers. Toward that end, I hope there is room on this forum for discussion of this objective.

        Reply

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