|Workers tend the oysters at the 38° North |
Oysters aquaculture operation.
On a cold January day, Maryland Natural Resources Police said they saw a man dumping items in the water by his St. Mary’s County home. Divers searching that stretch of Smith Creek off the Potomac River then recovered oysters, oyster shell and mesh bags of the type used in shellfish aquaculture operations, according to police.As the article goes on to note, oyster poaching is practically a tradition in parts of Maryland, and the charges and penalties are usually low, and thought of as the cost of doing business. In part, I suspect this was because most of the poaching was taking oysters off public bottom, that would in time have been made available at a different time.
As a result, Joseph Franklin Sullivan, 20, of St. Inigoes, has been charged with four felony counts of theft and one of destroying property in what authorities say is the first criminal case brought in Maryland for stealing from water leased to a private oyster farm.
Sullivan, who had previously worked on some oyster farms in the area, is accused of taking thousands of dollars’ worth of shellfish from a lease in nearby Calvert Bay that since 2012 has been farmed by J.D. Blackwell of 38° North Oysters.
The Natural Resources Police superintendent, Col. Robert K. “Ken” Ziegler Jr., said he had been preparing the department for such a case since last year, when he became acting superintendent. The felony charge is meant to be a warning shot of sorts, according to the 40-year law enforcement veteran, who has since been formally appointed to head the NRP. He said he sees these leases as storefronts, and those who take from them are no different than common burglars.
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If convicted on all counts for the aquaculture thefts, he faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison and a fine of $27,000. The case is scheduled to be tried in May in St. Mary’s County District Court; a preliminary hearing was to take place in late March.
With the rise of oyster aquaculture in the Bay, however, human effort and investment by individuals and small companies produce areas where a small effort can steal a lot of oysters, causing economic hardship to those who put out the money, time and effort.