By Rebecca Lessner (RebeccaAnnLessner[at]gmail.com), for MarylandReporter.com
As the Chesapeake Bay watershed overpopulates with huge, predatory blue catfish, legislators introduced a plan to reward everyday citizens who report the introduction of invasive species to Maryland waterways.
SB 322 would offer a reward to any Maryland citizen who sees and reports an introduction of invasive species. These citizen watchdogs could earn up to half of what the perpetrator is fined.
Fines for introducing foreign organisms to Maryland ecosystem can range up to $1,000 per organism.
People who help the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) charge a perpetrator dumping an entire cooler full of blue catfish have the potential of making quite a catch themselves.
Senate bill sponsor Thomas Mac Middleton, D-Charles, presented his bill to the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Wednesday, voicing the frustration DNR has experienced attempting to remove nuisance organisms from Maryland waterways. The bill already passed the Senate unanimously.
These organisms, such as the blue catfish, zebra mussel and snakehead fish, are beginning to overpopulate due to a lack of predators.
The damage caused by nuisance organisms is permanent, pretty severe and has real economic consequences on our fisheries, said Bevin Buchheister, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission (CBC).
Blue Catfish reach up to 100-pounds in weight and consume native species such as blue crabs and heron, and the large species has hardly any predators to keep their population balanced.
Big fish may be intentionally spread
The sports-fish makes for a great fish story, but not for a healthy watershed.
DNR suspects theyre being intentionally spread so sport fishermen can have them in their area, said Buchheister.
Another invasive species is the northern snakehead, which is considered a delicacy when caught and cooked.
Committee Chairman Del. Kumar Barve asked the panel, why not just begin selling them to the food industry?
They are not easy to catch, said Robert Brown, President of the Maryland Watermens Association. Most of what are caught are shot with a bow and arrow, at night with a spotlight.
The committee was stunned, Do they allow this on Sundays? asked Barve jokingly, as Maryland does not allow hunting on most Sundays.
One of the big arguments against the bill is the concern over creating bounty hunters out of Maryland citizens.
However, since these crimes against mother nature are so hard to track, Middleton believes Natural Resources needs a helping hand.
This is the only tool that really gets to it, said Middleton. We have to give them (DNR) the tools that they need in order to prevent situations like the blue catfish.
Brown, a native of the Potomac River, agreed with the senator. He warned that even if DNR can control the zebra mussels, catfish and snakeheads, more species may be spread in the future.
Blue Catfish were first introduced in the 1970s. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, the largest blue catfish caught in Maryland weighed 84 pounds and was caught in the Potomac River in 2012.