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Radar system helps track illegal shellfish harvesting

By SARAH POLUS

Capital News Service

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources and State Police hope new technology and harsher penalties will help crack down on illegal oyster harvesting in the Chesapeake Bay.

Poaching includes harvesting undersized oysters, exceeding bushel limits or harvesting in areas designated as sanctuaries.

Oyster poaching can undermine attempts at restoring oyster populations. Mostly due to overharvesting and disease, “currently less than 1 percent of historic levels of oysters exist in the bay,” Sarah Widman, a Department of Natural Resources Fishery spokeswoman said.

Poaching also compromises researchers’ ability to gather data. “It’s very frustrating from a scientific perspective,” said Don Meritt, director of the Horn Point Laboratory.

The oyster harvest season runs from Oct. 1 to the end of March.

Poaching tends to peak around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when demand for oysters goes up, increasing temptation to poach, according to law enforcement.

According to Maryland Natural Resources Police spokeswoman Candy Thomson, Thanksgiving was “awfully quiet” in terms of oyster poaching. DNR police reported several watermen cited in the weeks and days leading up to Christmas, however, including some in the waters around St. Mary’s County.

“I do think they’re working and I do think they’re a good deterrent,” John “Willy” Dean, president of the St. Mary’s Watermen’s Association, said of the of the stepped up efforts to prevent poaching. “As far as I know, nobody messes around in the sanctuaries anymore,” where harvesting oysters is prohibited.

Although hard to control, poaching is best managed through electronic surveillance. Poaching incidents have increased over the last decade because “punishment is not uniform or severe enough to really act as a deterrent,” Meritt said.

Now new technological developments, and the implementation of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s 10-point Oyster Restoration Plan in 2010, have contributed to a crackdown on poaching.

The implementation of the Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network provides the MAryland Natural Resources Police with laptops and radar that work 24/7 to monitor commercial fishing practices. The network is crucial in allowing police to cover vast areas of the bay, Thomson said.

The network has two advantages over old poaching prevention methods: unlike traditional trackers, it works at night, and records everything it sees, creating evidence for legal prosecutions. This year police have also begun utilizing a helicopter equipped with a nose camera that can zoom in on poachers from distances of 8 to 10 miles away, even at night, Thomson said.

“In the not-so-distant past it wasn’t unusual for someone to be a multiple offender,” Thomson said. Since lawmakers have increased penalties, however, the risk of illegal harvesting is no longer just a fine. Now, poachers face immediate and permanent loss of their oyster harvesting licenses.

“It’s too costly to do wrong,” Dean said.

According to Maryland Natural Resources Police records, most violations come from the harvest and possession of undersized oysters.

Between Oct. 1 and Dec. 12, 86 citations and 181 warnings had been handed out this season, according to Maryland Natural Resources Police Capt. Quincy Shockley.

In 2008, the police issued 241 violations — including both citations and warnings — for all categories. The total violation number increased to 269 in 2009, dropped to 168 in 2010, and increased back to 238 in 2011. There was a spike in violations in 2012, when 297 citation and warnings were handed out.

It’s hard to predict how this season will compare to past years, since the radar network is providing police with information they never had before. The system will either show that there’s more poaching than ever thought, or it will prove to be a major deterrent if poachers decide it’s not worth the risk anymore, Thomson said.

“A lot of pieces of falling into place this year [are creating] a much more efficient operation,” Thomson said.

Staff writer Jesse Yeatman contributed to this report.