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Oyster poachers are stealing taxpayers' money

Thank you for highlighting the significant problem of illegal oyster harvesting in the Chesapeake Bay ("A sour oyster stew," May 10). Officials dispute the exact extent of this criminal activity but say possibly up to 80 percent of "sanctuary" reefs off-limits to harvesting experience poaching by watermen.

Taxpayers and residents who participate in oyster restoration programs are victims as much as the bay's ecosystem. Tax dollars fund the replenishment of oysters on reefs where watermen can legally harvest as well as on the sanctuary reefs where harvesting is illegal. Under Maryland law, about a quarter of the total acreage of oyster reefs in the state is set aside as sanctuaries. The rest is open to harvest.

This plan allows watermen to continue to earn money from harvesting but also allows oysters on sanctuaries to reproduce, to grow resistant to disease and to contribute to the overall health of the ecosystem. Oysters filter water, increase fish habitat and provide many other benefits.

This plan is completely undermined by widespread poaching on the protected reefs. Clearly we need better enforcement and tougher penalties for poaching.

The Maryland legislature has made important steps in that direction. But that is not enough. Let me suggest two more tools.

First, law-abiding watermen should more aggressively police bad apples in their midst. Poaching not only steals the livelihood of other watermen, it erodes the public trust that watermen have long enjoyed.

Second, the state could place concrete reef balls on the sanctuary reefs. The reef balls are man-made reefs shaped like spheres, and they deter poaching because watermen cannot drag harvesting equipment over areas with the balls.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has had good success over the past six years using reef balls to create thriving oyster beds that are difficult to poach.

The bay is a public resource, albeit an ailing one, and it is not the property of any one group to exploit. Poaching oysters is stealing, and nobody should accept that as a fact of life.

Kim Coble, Annapolis

The writer is Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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