By JENNIFER HLAD
ANNAPOLIS (March 13, 2010) - For 20 years, Roy Rafter made his living as a waterman, catching fish, crabs and oysters. Now, Rafter spends hours in a dark boat, working to catch poachers.
"It's kind of like fishing. Sometimes you catch them, sometimes you don't," said Rafter, a Natural Resources Police corporal, as he finished up a predawn patrol of the Chesapeake Bay Wednesday morning.
The Natural Resources Police have placed a special emphasis on protecting oysters this season, and now state lawmakers are working to pass legislation they say would help deter potential poachers.
Two identical bills making their way through the House and Senate would allow the Department of Natural Resources to revoke the licenses of oyster poachers in some instances—a measure Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, said would serve as a deterrent for poachers who take resources away from honest watermen.
The bills would allow the department to revoke the commercial oyster license of anyone cited for taking oysters from a closed or prohibited area, taking oysters with illegal gear, taking oysters at prohibited times or off-season, or taking oysters from an area leased by someone else. The department would be required to hold a hearing about the matter before revoking the license, and the accused person would be allowed to appeal the decision.
Frosh and seven other senators are sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, which went before the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Tuesday. The House Environmental Matters Committee heard its version Friday.
Revoking a fisherman's license would mean he or she would have to re-apply for a license to be able to fish in the future. Because of caps on the number of commercial fishing licenses, applicants now may wait years before a license is available.
The Department of Natural Resources recently suspended for the season the oyster licenses of two men who had been charged with multiple oyster violations—the second time the department had done so, according to a DNR news release.
Zachary W. Seaman, 26, of Woolford, was charged with 19 counts of exceeding the daily bushel limit and removing oysters from a sanctuary for two recent incidents, according to the news release. He previously has been convicted of possessing striped bass during a closed season, possessing oysters over the legal limit, possessing oversized oysters and possessing undersized crabs, according to the department.
Edward B. Lowery, 45, of Tilghman, was charged with power dredging outside the legal hours, possession of oysters on a vessel more than two hours after sunset and power dredging in a hand-tong only area for an incident in January, according to the release. He previously has been convicted of several other violations, including illegal possession of striped bass, dredging for oysters in a prohibited area and possessing undersized oysters.
Joe Gill, deputy secretary of Natural Resources, told the Senate committee that fishermen have been caught dredging for oysters in the early morning hours, wearing lights on their heads so they could keep the boat's navigation lights off and elude detection.
"This is something that should never, ever, ever occur," Gill said. "The only way to stop it is to make the penalty so severe they won't do it in the first place."
Officers say limited resources and crafty violators make it difficult to find fishermen who are breaking the rules.
"The creatures we're protecting are voiceless," said Sgt. Art Windemuth, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Police. "When we're dealing with conservation violations, it's hard to get a handle on what's going on out there."
The Natural Resources Police has just 247 officers, down from about 440 covering the same ground in 1990, he said.
And while technology like infrared, GPS and night vision has allowed officers to be more efficient, "we always need to have boots on the ground," Windemuth said.
During the last oyster season, officers issued 219 oyster citations, he said. That was an increase from 103 citations during the 2007-2008 season and 97 during the 2006-2007 season.
Officers often split their eight-hour shifts, coming in early in the morning to look for poachers and returning in the afternoon to check catches at the dock, Windemuth said. Catching the violators is important because of the effect they can have, he said.
"The resource is a stationary resource, so (poaching) can have a devastating impact," Windemuth said.
Sgt. Robert Kersey said that a poacher illegally using a power dredger—an efficient type of harvesting equipment—in an area where only hand-tonging is allowed could catch in an hour what it would take the legal oysterman all day to catch.
The number of oysters harvested from the Chesapeake Bay decreased from more than 2 million bushels a year in the 1980s to about 100,000 bushels in 2008-2009, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed an Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan in an effort to rebuild the oyster population, but Windemuth said poachers can spoil efforts to repopulate the bay.
Violators also harm the hardworking watermen who rely on the oysters to make their living, Rafter said—one of the reasons he loves his job.
"Now I get to help protect the resource for the other people who are still working on the water," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.