The March 14 arrests of the watermen was the most recent example of heightened campaigns in both Marlyand and Virginia to crack down on illegal harvest of oysters. Widespread poaching has been a significant barrier to oyster restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay.
“On the water, from the air and on land, Natural Resource Police officers are making it clear that oyster poaching will not be tolerated,” said Governor Martin O’Malley. “Poaching oysters not only robs Maryland citizens and law abiding watermen of this important resource, it hampers our efforts to restore the health of our Bay.”
Police in Maryland are using a $5.6 million, high-tech system of nine cameras linked to computers called MLEIN (Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network) to crack down on poachers, according to a recent article in the Bay Journal.
Col. George F. Johnson IV, Superintendent of the Maryland Natural Resources Police, said the state is using all tools available -– from surveillance to helicopters -– to try to protect the state’s expanded network of oyster sanctuaries.
“In this case (on March 14), the helicopter allowed us to track the vessels as they worked in the reserve and keep them in sight until additional assistance arrived,” said Johnson in a press release. “We want to thank State Police Aviation for helping us protect Maryland’s bounty.”
The arrested watermen, aboard three commercial boats, were charged with removing oysters from the Evans Harvest Reserve, a remote 69-acre site at the mouth of the Wicomico River and Tangier Sound, according to Maryland Natural Resource police.
An officer stationed in the State Police helicopter at 9:20 a.m. could see the four buoys that mark the corners of the reserve and observed three vessels patent tonging inside the boundaries. Using a high-powered camera in the helicopter’s nose, the officer relayed the names of the vessels and their locations to nearby a patrol boat, according to the press release.
When the watermen realized they were being watched, they powered out of the reserve, their vessels’ anchors still in the water. They were intercepted by an NRP patrol boat and ordered to return nine bushels of oysters to the reserve.
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By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation