Virginia officials say oyster poaching has become epidemic in the Chesapeake Bay.
Last year, the Virginia Marine Police logged 240 violations for illegal oyster harvesting. Some were for harvesting oysters intended to restore the bay’s ailing stocks from protected sanctuaries, The Virginian-Pilot reported.
Police and shellfish experts say several factors have contributed to the increase in poaching, including a weak economy and fewer patrol officers on the water.
On the James River, some watermen pretend to work on privately leased grounds and then slip onto nearby public grounds, where they use dredges and scrapes to take oysters out of season , police and officials say.
Jim Wesson, state director of oyster restoration, said oysters on the Eastern Shore are pirated mostly by hand, “but with a dredge or a hand scrape, man, you can grab up a lot of oysters very quickly and get out of there.”
State officials are discussing ways to combat the problem. They include revoking the licenses of repeat offenders more frequently. Oyster boats might be required to have GPS tracking devices so the marine police can keep better tabs on them without being on the water.
|Oyster Pirates stealing oysters at night - Harpers 1884|
Competition for oysters led to lawlessness on the Chesapeake. First New England watermen who had exhausted the oyster beds in their local waters sailed into the Chesapeake, angering Maryland and Virginia watermen who considered the Bay off limits to outsiders. Shots were fired, people were killed. Then Maryland and Virginia watermen went to war with each other. Ultimately watermen from individual counties went to war with watermen of rival counties, each poaching in the others’ rivers as the oyster supplies dwindled.While the problems of Chesapeake Bay have grown since then, it's good to see some things haven't changed all that much...
At the same time, there was a dim awareness among government officials that the oyster supply just might not last forever. Attempts were made from the federal to the local level to regulate such things as who could take oysters, where and when they could take them, and legal harvesting size – things we take for granted today. Watermen ignored the law and enforcement was impossible anyway. For onething, elected officials recognized that antagonizing watermen was political suicide. For another, little or no funds were appropriated to support enforcement. The rape of the Bay continued.