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'Oyster Wars'

Fishermen flocked to the Chesapeake to get their share of its oysters in the late 1800s.

New Englanders and Virginians -- in addition to Marylanders -- also got in on the business. Soon, there was an over-abundance of competition on the Bay, and Maryland wanted to stop it. The Oyster Wars had begun.

Laws passed in 1830 limited Maryland oyster harvesting to state residents only. More legislation would be needed to enforce the rule.

Maryland outlawed dredging -- a harvesting method considered harmful to the bay -- while Virginia permitted it. When out-of-state watermen brought their dredges to the Chesapeake, Maryland lawmakers had seen enough.

In 1865, more legislation was passed to require harvesters to purchase an annual license. The General Assembly didn't want dredging or over-harvesting to destroy the oyster population.

Enforcement of these laws was left up to local authorities, who had little power on the open water. That would soon be changed when, in 1868, Maryland created its State Oyster Police Force. They were given the authority to enforce the new laws.

Over the years, that organization has been transformed and combined with other law enforcement agencies. The result is the Maryland Natural Resources Police – one of Maryland's oldest law enforcement agency, according to its Web site.

A May 1, 1968 article in The Sun detailed the challenges the state faced in policing the bay:

"Oyster pirates worked at night in fast dredge boats. They could outrun the police vessels and gun battles sometimes broke out between the pirates and police.

"To conserve oysters, power dredging had been outlawed and catches by tongers was limited.

"It is believed that a few unscrupulous oyster packers had supplied funds to certain watermen to buy high powered equipment superior to that of the State."

Various government agencies were founded over the next decade to create order on the Chesapeake Bay, Potomac River and surrounding waterways. The Potomac River Fisheries Commission, for example, was created in 1963 to regulate not just oyster harvesting, but also recreational and commercial fishing, crabbing and clamming.

Information from Sun archives

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