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Governor O’Malley Lauds NRP Oyster Enforcement Efforts

Radar system, helicopter patrols deter poaching, protecting keystone species

Two officers check a waterman's catch.

Two officers check a waterman’s catch.

Governor Martin O’Malley today thanked the Maryland Natural Resources Police for its enforcement efforts during the six-month oyster season, which ended March 31.

“When we began this large-scale oyster restoration initiative nearly four years ago, we promised to turn things around and do everything within our power to protect this vital species,” said Governor O’Malley. “I want to thank our NRP officers ─ the men and women who continuously put their hearts into protecting our State’s natural resources ─ for their hard work and dedication not only this past oyster season but every single day.”

Preliminary reports show that officers issued 92 citations for violations, the majority of them for harvesting undersized or unsorted oysters and harvesting in prohibited areas. The total is a 3-year low and the second lowest number of citations in five years.

“Clearly our message is getting out: those who steal oysters from Maryland citizens and law-abiding watermen will be caught,” said DNR Secretary Joe Gill. “Citizens are calling our tip line, and NRP officers and prosecutors are working as a team to thwart poaching in the Chesapeake Bay.”

Increased police presence did not, however, deter law-abiding watermen. Oyster harvests are on the rise, with watermen quickly reaching their daily catch limits during the early part of the season. Preliminary results suggest that the 2013-14 harvest season may have the highest landings since the 1980s, according to DNR Fisheries Service.

Using a State Police helicopter as a surveillance platform, NRP officers caught four watermen harvesting oysters from a protected area in Somerset County on March 14, 2014.

Still poachers continued to test the system. In January, officers stopped a tractor-trailer on U.S. 50 in Easton that contained 187 bushels of undersized oysters, equivalent to the legal harvest of 16 watermen. One Kent County waterman was charged on six separate occasions with oyster violations; his license was revoked last week.

The 2010 oyster recovery plan championed by Governor O’Malley provided a blueprint to rebuild Maryland’s oyster population ─ and its vital ecological functions ─ and help the industry it once supported. The development of the Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network, MLEIN ─ Maryland’s Homeland Security network of radar-and-cameras ─ has enhanced NRP’s ability to monitor and track illegal activities. As part of the plan, NRP officers and State Police Aviation are also using helicopters as surveillance platforms.

“MLEIN gives us sophisticated maritime intelligence capabilities by allowing us to keep watch over protected oyster beds from beyond the horizon. Additionally, State Police helicopters, equipped with advanced optics, enable officers to see for miles, even in the dark, without being detected,” said Col. George F. Johnson IV, NRP superintendent.

Last month, MLEIN was used in court for the first time to prove to a Somerset District judge that two watermen repeatedly entered a sanctuary and harvested oysters. Other cases are pending.

Tougher penalties, authorized by the General Assembly, have created a “one and done” revocation process for the most egregious offenders and increased the penalty for engaging in commercial fishing with a suspended license, a revoked license or without a license, by establishing a fine of up to $25,000 and imprisonment for up to one year.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Office of the Attorney General and the District Court of Maryland have expanded a successful program highlighting natural resources cases, including fishing violations, to 18 of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions. Cases are heard on a specific day each month in the region where they occurred, and prosecuted by a designated regional State’s Attorney. NRP is working to have natural resource dockets put in place in the remaining six areas ─ Frederick, Harford, Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Washington counties, and Baltimore City ─ by 2015.

“Officers, prosecutors and judges are doing their due diligence. Our oyster cases are receiving the attention they deserve,” said Gill. “The result is a win for the Chesapeake Bay, a win for the people of Maryland, and a win for our commercial industry and its rich heritage.”