Four Virginia conservation enforcement officers converged on the Shenandoah River near Watermelon Park on July 17th for two days of targeted enforcement designed to stem a rash of illegal cast net and spear-gun fishing that has devastated wildlife populations in the area. The “sting” operation resulted in seventeen misdemeanor citations for ten illegal anglers and impoundment of six cast nets. The anglers were alleged to be in possession of over 300 fish and were charged with ten Class 2 misdemeanors and seven Class 3 misdemeanors.
In Virginia a Class 3 Misdemeanor is punishable by a fine of not more than $500 while a Class 2 Misdemeanor can carry a fine of up to $1000 and up to six months in jail.
Local Residents Alarmed by Irregular Fishing Practices
While local residents welcomed the enforcement activities, characterized as “widespread and persistent illegal poaching” by landowners living near the river and labeled a “very serious threat to the resource” by Bob Duncan, Executive Director of Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), questions remain about why the enforcement effort was not initiated until multiple complaints were filed by local residents as well as DGIF’s plans for preventing a recurrence of the activity in the future.
“For months I had been seeing a good deal of activity in our section of the Shenandoah with people trespassing on our area’s private road. One of the trespassers always seemed to be carrying a casting net” said Clarke resident Doug Jackson. Jackson and his neighbors own nearly a mile of river frontage just south of Watermelon Park. “I was naÃ¯ve enough to not even think about those casting nets being used to target game fish.”
Cast nets are literally nets designed to be thrown by fishermen into areas where fish are schooling making it possible to catch many fish at one time. The nets can also be pulled through the water by one or more fisherman with similar results.
While the use of cast nets is popular and legal in some saltwater areas, the technique is illegal, along with the use of spear-guns, for catching game fish in the Shenandoah River. Such highly efficient fish harvesting techniques can cause rapid reductions in fish populations with a similar indirect impact on birds and other river species including eagles, heron, osprey, turtles and other wildlife.
Jackson, at 76 a lifetime river enthusiast, says that he has been in love with the Shenandoah River since he was 16 years old; “If there’s anybody in Clarke County that’s spent more time on the Shenandoah River than I have then I’d like to meet them” Jackson said.
Jackson recently recounted several cast net encounters that alarmed him about what was taking place, literally next to his front yard, in the river.
“I came upon a group of seven Hispanic males walking down our private road, one of them with a huge casting net carrying two large channel catfish. I noticed two other men carrying white kitchen trash bags, each half full of sunfish, smallmouth bass of different sizes and redhorse suckers. No exaggeration, I estimated that the men had over two hundred fish in total! They claimed they didn’t speak English. My wife tried to take pictures with a cell phone but the men turned and ran quickly back into the river. Further down the road we observed, again, no exaggeration, several other groups of Hispanic men casting nets into the river. That evening, in front of our property, there were more Hispanic males at the end of a large island all casting large nets into the deeper holes of the river. We observed fish being taken out of the nets and put into five gallon buckets.”
Jackson described the realization that game fish were being indiscriminately pulled from the river, already weakened from PCB pollution, poultry waste run-off and fish kills, as “heart-breaking”.
Jackson described watching two men in the river with spear-guns and a net on another occasion. “It was unbelievable” he said. “After hovering over a large boulder in the river, one of them shot a six inch fish and put it on a stringer that already had a more of fish on it.”
While it might be tempting to jump to the conclusion that local residents are unfairly blaming Hispanic anglers for local over-fishing problems, Jackson strongly denies the suggestion:
“I’ve been a fisherman all of my life and I am happy to share the river with everyone. But for a recreational fisherman such as myself, who has bought fishing licenses for decades, abided by the game and fishery laws and paid taxes on thousands of dollars of game and fishing items, this kind of illegal activity is gut-wrenching.”
Jackson’s informal observation that many of the fishing law violators are Hispanic is indeed supported by others who are knowledgeable about the illegal fishing issue.
Shenandoah Fish Populations Take a Dive
Mike Capanelli, Marketing Director for Watermelon Park, said that 60% of the people that patronize his campground are from El Salvador. “The Salvadorans say that they like this area because it reminds them exactly of home. They enjoy spending time here near river and the mountains with their families.” On weekends the park population can reach hundreds of people, many of which are Salvadoran.
Shenandoah Riverkeeper and Boyce resident Jeff Kelble says that illegal cast net fishing is a cultural issue more that a race issue. “The idea of sport fishing is not very prevalent in many cultures as it is here in the US. In many countries the goal of fishing is “food”, not recreation. I don’t know if the people using cast nets are “unaware” or “uninterested” in Virginia’s fishing laws but I am definitely seeing an upward trend in the use and complaints about cast nets.”
In 2006, Kelble became the first Shenandoah Riverkeeper through a nonprofit environmental organization that uses citizen action to enforce state and federal laws designed to restore and protect water quality throughout the watershed.
Keble says that in the stretch of river around Watermelon Park “anything with a fin is being taken”. “Fish density from Lockes Landing downstream to just below Watermelon Park has practically dropped off the table” he said.
Conservation Police Officer Carl Martin supervises DGIF operations in Frederick, Warren, Shenandoah, Page and Clarke Counties and oversaw the recent enforcement operations near Watermelon Park. Martin agrees with Keble’s view that the cast net problem has taken a toll on Clarke’s game fish population.
“There is an impact on localized fish populations when large numbers of fish are taken out on a continuing basis” Martin said.
Other Campgrounds Associated with Cast Net Infractions
However, Martin and Keble have differing opinions on the scope of the problem elsewhere in Martin’s jurisdiction. Asked if the cast net phenomenon plaguing Clarke County was occurring in other parts of Virginia Martin replied “No, it’s not something that we see on every boat patrol.”
Not only does Keble dispute Martin’s statement, Keble says that the cast net problem overlaps other campgrounds similar to Watermelon Park elsewhere on the Shenandoah River.
“The cast net problem is mildly epidemic in other places on the river” Keble said. “I have witnessed it first hand at the Goods Mill campground on the Upper South Fork of the Shenandoah between Lurray and Front Royal. I’ve also seen it at another campground in the Lurray area near where Hawk’s Bill Creek empties into the South Fork.”
Other issues have some local residents questioning DGIF’s ability to address cast netting problems, both locally and statewide.
In an e-mail response regarding “ Shenandoah River – Problem with Casting Nets” sent to local resident Bev MacDonald from DGIF Executive Director Duncan, Duncan says:
“Bev, please know that yours is the second complaint on this issues in the past two days and this is the first time that this has been brought to my attention. I understand share your concerns. I am forwarding a copy of your e-mail to our law enforcement division and also to our bureau of wildlife resources so that our law and fisheries staff can provide some background on this issue.”
Yet, in a July 26, 2010 letter from Doug Jackson to Clarke County Supervisor John Staelin, Jackson believes that DGIF has known of the cast netting problem in Clarke County for much longer. In a letter forwarding video documentation of Clarke cast netting to Staelin, Jackson says:
“It [a DVD containing video documentation] is but a small example of what has been taking place for months (Keith Crider, the game warden, says “a couple of years”!)”
Nor has DGIF taken the initiative to post signs alerting anglers specifically about the illegality of cast net use. Although DGIF says that cast net prohibition sign postings will be considered next week at an administrative meeting, Martin says that fisherman are expected to read and understand DGIF’s regulations before fishing.
“ DGIF publishes a â€˜hunting and fishing regulations guide” and the regulations are also available online at the DGIF website.” However, Martin said, neither the hardcopy regulations nor the DGIF website version were available in Spanish.
Martin also said that there had been no coordination between DGIF and Watermelon Park on the cast net issue. “How much say does a landowner have in what goes on in the river?” Martin asked. “People pay to get into the campground and have access to the river. Ultimately it’s each angler’s responsibility to follow the law.”
However, Watermelon Park’s Capanelli presented a different view of interaction between DGIF and Watermelon Park; “Keith Crider and the park owner are in touch all of the time.” Capanelli said.
Capanelli said that the park is owned by John Miller, Jr.
Clarke County Conservation Police Officer Crider was contacted several times for comment on this story but did not return calls.
On behalf of the Park, Capanelli said that, while he did not believe that his campers were necessarily to blame for the illegal fishing, Watermelon Park’s best interest is served when people respect the river and the fishing laws.
Diane, owner of the Watermelon Park Camp Store said in a phone call on Friday, “Our guests are all required to wear arm bands when they enter the park. We do our best to keep other people from sneaking over the fence to get into the park but the people who were given citations could have been anyone.”
Capanelli said that the Park was in the process of having signs printed in English and Spanish that will alert guests about the illegality of cast net fishing.
Concerns about River Environment Health and Human Health
In the short term it appears that DGIF’s primary on-going response to preventing a recurrence of the cast netting problem is periodic patrols of known “hotspots”, a difficult task given that each county, including Clarke, has only one conservation resource officer assigned.
According to Fred Leckie, DGIF Assistant Director of Fisheries;
“We are currently in the middle of the Board’s fish regulation process for this year, so I believe the best short term approach is to continue working with you (our constituents), DGIF staff biologists, and DGIF CPOs to keep the pressure on the immediate “hot spots” on the Shenandoah River. In the long term, we will investigate impacts of cast nets across the state and see how we can amend regulations to reduce or eliminate illegal use.”
While DGIF officials in Richmond debate policy issues related to cast nets, Sergeant Martin said that his objective was to preserve the fishery resource for the continued enjoyment and pleasure of everyone.
However, Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Keble points out a humanitarian issue not mentioned by any of the organizations or citizens involved in the current fish fight; Health concerns for the people consuming the fish.
“These fish are poisonous and I assume that families and children are eating what they catch. This river is full of PCB’s and Mercury and the fish should not be eaten” Keble said.
“But when I tell the people fishing they say â€˜This river has the cleanest water that we’ve ever seen, much cleaner than any river in our home country’.
When I tell them that you can’t see the Mercury and PCB’s in the water they just laugh. They think that what I’m saying is just a scare tactic.”