As oyster war heats up, Maryland cracks down on poachers

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010; A01

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 of those 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 late Thursday morning. 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."

Depleted Eastern oyster

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 U.S. harvest. Washington area menus offer imports 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.

So it happened that, on Jan. 28, 1st Sgt. Jamie Green of the Virginia Marine Police made an oyster arrest on dry land.

"Somebody running out of the woods, you know, with oysters in his hand -- it's kind of a gimme there," Green said. Two men had sneaked in to pluck oysters out of a shallow area in York County that had been closed to harvesting because of concerns that the oysters might be diseased. "I jumped out of the vehicle, and he dropped the oysters," Green said.

Stealth patrols

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.

But, in modern times, policing dropped off enough that watermen began to complain.

"They were letting the fellows get out of hand," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. Simns said that the offending watermen have been just 2 to 3 percent of the total but that they set a bad precedent. "Everybody else that tries to do it right was watching them make twice the money in half the time." Now, somebody else is watching them.

About 3 o'clock one recent night, a Natural Resources Police patrol boat was putting along silently in Broad Creek, an Eastern Shore tributary south of St. Michaels. An officer was on land, watching for poachers leaving the harbor at Tilghman, Md.

"It's kind of just like fishing," said Cpl. Roy Rafter, a former watermen. "To catch the fish, you gotta be out."

But this night, the fishing was poor. The patrol spotted a lump on radar that might have been a boat but turned out to be a duck blind. The officers looked in vain for milk-jug buoys illuminated by glow sticks, signs that a spot had been marked for an illegal return after dark.

Finally, about 5:30 a.m., they headed for home.

"They have no idea that we've been here," Rafter said, as the boat zoomed north toward the Bay Bridge. "So we'll come back and we'll do it tonight, and we'll do it again the next night."

A few moments later, their boat passed a waterman's boat, headed out from Tilghman. That boat's searchlight flipped on, then swung over to illuminate the stealth patrol. "Aagh!" Officer Gregory Harris said. "Got us!"

Overzealous policing?

To those caught up in the nighttime patrols and their friends, this campaign looks like overzealous policing. They say that Maryland is unleashing overzealous cops and pressing phony charges with the idea of putting oystermen out of business for good.

But some also say that, given the state of the oyster and growing restrictions on their catch, watermen can sometimes be tempted to break the law to make a living. In interviews, poaching suspects dismissed the Eastern Shore rumor that they were doing it for drugs: "I might not pass a breathalyzer test, but I could pass a drug test," said Beck, the waterman guilty of oyster violations.

On Thursday, Beck appeared in a sunny courtroom in Chestertown. A police sergeant read his account of catching Beck dredging for oysters in a no-dredge area (the confiscated oysters were returned to the bay). Beck pleaded guilty to three counts and asked the judge to be lenient. He wasn't.

"When people like you do what you want to do . . . it affects every single waterman in this whole county and in this whole state," said District Court Judge John E. Nunn III. He noted that Beck had prior poaching charges and suspended his license through next year's oyster season. "Maybe people will start taking the law a little seriously."

Later, at the Blue Bird, Beck said the whole thing was part of a plan. "They're going to turn the bay into a sanctuary," he said. Maryland plans to set aside about a quarter of the bay's productive oyster grounds as sanctuaries next year, further squeezing the watermen's way of life.

Would he do it again? Beck stared down at a cocktail napkin. "Yeah," he said. "If I had to. [If] it came down to eating or going hungry."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company