As oyster war escalates, Md. cracks down on poachers

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post / March 28, 2010

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CHESTERTOWN, Md. — The first time there was a war over the Chesapeake Bay’s oysters — in the 1800s — it started because there were so many of the shellfish. For a share of the fortune on the bay’s floor, watermen fought police and one another with rifles and cannons.

This year’s oyster war is being fought with cellphones, glow sticks, fast boats, and night-vision technology, but for the opposite reason.

Maryland, trying to protect a species whose ranks have declined by 99 percent, is cracking down on watermen who catch oysters in protected sanctuaries or with banned equipment. Over the winter, officers with the Maryland Natural Resources Police conducted undercover surveillance operations in small fishing towns and on rivers, hiding on patrol boats in the dark.

The blitz is welcomed by the Maryland Watermen’s Association, which says bad oystermen are figuratively stealing from good ones. But some caught in the dragnet said that a shortage of oysters and tighter state laws have pushed them to break rules.

In the past few months, police and poachers have played hide-and-seek in a tense drama that seems out of place along the new Chesapeake, with its art galleries and weekend homes.

“You know, I did do wrong. But that’s the times,’’ said waterman Willy Beck, 43, drinking a gin and tonic at the Blue Bird Tavern in Chestertown. A few minutes earlier, an Eastern Shore judge had found him guilty of oyster violations, fined him $1,000, and taken his oystering license for a year. “You need to make a living. You get a letter from the bank telling you [that you] need $2,000,’’ Beck said. “You need to get $2,000.’’

Maryland’s crackdown during oyster season, which runs Oct. 1 to March 31, has included expanded patrols from the Natural Resources Police. Officers have been looking for watermen who catch oysters at night, which is banned; who take them from underwater sanctuaries or areas closed because of pollution; or who drag “dredges’’ to scrape areas where dredges are off-limits.

Offshore, the state is also using a new legal strategy: it suspends a waterman’s fishing license for a single “egregious’’ offense.

The urgency, state officials say, comes from the dire state of Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster. It has been depleted by overfishing, pollution, and diseases that are usually fatal for the shellfish but don’t harm humans.

The Chesapeake, once a dominant source of oysters, now provides less than 5 percent of the annual US harvest. Many restaurants import oysters from Canada, farmed oysters from the West Coast, and wild-caught mollusks from the Gulf of Mexico.

“What we’re realizing is that the welfare . . . of the oyster virginica is really at stake here,’’ said Joseph Gill, deputy secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources. “What we are saying is, if you do this, we are going to catch you.’’

Oyster crime also happens in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake.

But there, authorities said, the problem seems less severe, and poachers are more likely to travel on foot than by boat. The deeper sections of the Virginia bay are often leased to private watermen, who would be keeping a close eye out.

Oyster enforcement used to be a matter of life and death on the Chesapeake. From the 1860s to the 1880s, there was a violent scramble to catch the bay’s oysters and ship them to canneries and East Coast restaurants. Watermen from Virginia and Maryland traded bullets and cannonballs and shot it out with state oyster “navies’’ sent to rein them in.