The weeks leading to the holidays tend to be the most active for oyster poachers in the Chesapeake Bay, but the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and state police were hoping in recent days that new technology and harsher penalties would help them crack down on illegal oyster harvesting.
Poaching includes harvesting undersized oysters, exceeding bushel limits or harvesting in areas designated as sanctuaries, said Natural Resources Police Capt. David Larsen said.
Mostly due to overharvesting and disease, "currently less than 1 percent of historic levels of oysters exist in the bay," said Sarah Widman, a Department of Natural Resources Fishery spokeswoman. Poaching undermines attempts to restore oyster populations and compromises researchers' ability to gather data.
Maryland Natural Resources Police spokeswoman Candy Thomson said this year's established season for legal oyster harvesting 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. Poaching incidents have increased over the last decade because "punishment is not uniform or severe enough to really act as a deterrent," said Don Meritt, director of the Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge.
"In the not-so-distant past, it wasn't unusual for someone to be a multiple offender," Thomson said. But that has changed somewhat, especially since lawmakers have increased penalties in recent years. Now, the risk of illegal harvesting is no longer just a fine — poachers face immediate and permanent loss of their oyster-harvesting licenses.
Between Oct. 1 and mid-December, 86 citations and 181 warnings were handed out, according to Maryland Natural Resources Police Capt. Quincy Shockley, who is based in Annapolis.
In 2008, police recorded 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 to 238 in 2011. There was a spike in violations in 2012, when 297 were handed out.
Although poaching is hard to control, officials say it is best managed through electronic surveillance.
This year, new technological developments and the implementation of Gov. Martin O'Malley's Oyster Restoration Plan have contributed to a crackdown on poaching. The implementation of the Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network provides 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 it records everything it sees, creating evidence for legal prosecutions.
This year police have also begun using a helicopter equipped with a nose camera that can zoom in on poachers from distances eight to 10 miles away, even at night, Thomson said.
According to Natural Resources Police records, most violations come from the harvest and possession of undersized oysters.
Officials are anxious to see how the holiday season shakes out in terms of overall violations. But they note it's hard to predict how the overall oyster 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 before — or it may 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, [creating] a much more efficient operation," Thomson said.