Oyster Wars

“Our mission and message is simple: ‘We will get you.’”

Maryland Natural Resources Superintendent Col. George F. Johnson IV is after Chesapeake Bay poachers.

In January, MNR Police caught a tractor-trailer loaded with illegal oysters. One of the largest oyster cases in recent years.

Semi tractor trailer caught in January with undersized oysters
Semi tractor trailer caught in January with undersized oysters

“There is no excuse for any amount of oyster poaching, let alone what happened here. A blatant disregard for our fishery is a slap in the face to responsible watermen, and all Marylanders,” said Department of Natural Resources Secretary Joseph P. Gill.

The truck was driving westbound on U.S. 50 in Easton on a Wednesday night when officers, acting on a tip, pulled it over. They spent the rest of the night measuring oysters by the light of their vehicle headlights.

Oyster poaching in Chesapeake Bay
DNR officers & cadets measuring oysters found in an illegal haul

Seventeen officers and cadets spent six hours pulling each muddy oyster out of red plastic bushel-baskets to be measured. They found all but one of the bushels contained oysters below the legal limit of three inches.

Oysters below the three inch limit

The percentage of undersized oysters in each bushel ranged from six percent to 46 percent, which is beyond Maryland’s five-percent tolerance level. That made 187 bushels illegal.

The approximately 50 bushels of undersized oysters, which filled the bed of a one-ton pick-up truck, were separated from the legal cargo and returned to an Eastern Shore oyster sanctuary.

Oyster poaching on Chesapeake Bay
Oysters waiting to be taken to an oyster sanctuary

This was the halfway point of Maryland’s six-month oyster harvesting season. DNR says that’s when when poachers tend to scoop up undersized oysters to make up for the increasing scarcity.

“When the season began (in October), we promised to get the poachers from the air and from the water.,” says Col. Johnson. “Now, we are getting them on the highways and back roads and we’re seizing their trucks.”

Oyster poaching in Chesapeake Bay
Dumping oysters into a one-ton pick-up for transportation to a sanctuary

The Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service has been conducting saturation patrols by boat and aerial surveillance from Maryland State Police helicopters with long-range cameras. In addition, the agency has a new tool, a system of radar units and cameras called the Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network, MLEIN, which allows officers to track vessels and “see” over the horizon.

As a result, J. Newman, 66, of Tappahannock, Virginia, was charged in the January bust with one count of attempting to transport undersized oysters out of state and five counts of possession of undersized and unculled oysters. The truck, owned by Cowart Seafood Corp., of Lottsburg, Virginia, was seized by the state.

If convicted, Newman faces a fine up to $1,000 per bushel, an estimated $187,000 for the load.

The value of the illegal oysters was about $8,000, according to the DNR.

“Stepped-up patrols, MLEIN and information from the public, helps us keep our promise to everyone who loves the Chesapeake Bay and its bounty, and believes in its future,” Col. Johnson says. “Poachers are learning that there is nowhere to hide.”

(Story & video courtesy of Maryland Natural Resources Police) 
 
Read about the original Oyster Wars in the Chesapeake Bay, 1632-1962, here. 
 

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