Officers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service visited several watermen on Tangier Island and seafood businesses in Crisfield last week as part of an investigation they are conducting related to oysters.
The federal officials interviewed watermen on the Virginia island, asking for records related to oyster sales to Crisfield businesses. They took copies of records but did not seize any bivalves; it’s not harvest season.
Federal officials would not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, saying that’s their policy. But Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, did confirm “federal law enforcement activity” in Crisfield and Tangier last Wednesday.
Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge said the officials came in two boats and a helicopter; at first, he said, he thought President Donald Trump had arrived. Trump famously phoned the mayor earlier this month, having seen a program on CNN about how Tangiermen didn’t believe in climate change – their problem was erosion – and had overwhelmingly voted for him.
Eskridge, a crabber, said the officers told him they had been conducting surveillance of the island, and did interviews with several watermen. Though it is 10 miles from the mainland in the Chesapeake Bay, marine law enforcement is never far. Two Virginia Marine Resources Commission officers live in Tangier; commissioner John M.R. Bull describes them as “active officers.”
Eskridge said the law enforcement inquiry apparently stems from a different method of counting oysters per bushel in the two states. A Virginia bushels holds 25 percent more than a Maryland bushel. (The two states also have different daily harvest limits: in Virginia, the maximum for patent tong, hand scrape and dredge gear is 8 bushels per person, or 24 bushels per boat; in Maryland, it's 15 bushels per person, and 30 bushels per boat.)
When the price of oysters, which has historically hovered around $30 a bushel, spikes closer to $55, as it has at times in recent seasons due to shortages in the Gulf of Mexico, the watermen feel it’s worth the fuel costs to take their oysters to Crisfield.
So, Eskridge said, the officers were finding a discrepancy in the catch records; a pair of Virginia oystermen would report catching 16 bushels, but would sell 20 in Maryland.
“We weren’t breaking any laws by taking the oysters into Maryland. They were offering more money,” Eskridge said. “If they get the same measurement for both states, that problem will go away.”
Casey Todd, owner of MeTompkin Seafood, said officers visited his Crisfield company Wednesday looking for Virginia records. MeTompkin buys about 5 percent of its oysters from Virginia, he said; the rest come from Maryland and the Gulf Coast.
“You really just do what they tell you. It’s as simple at that. You got government people telling you what to do, you do it,” Todd said.
MeTompkin had a brush with the law in 2007; company officials pleaded guilty to selling undersized crabs, for which they were fined $50,000 for violating the Lacey Act, which bars the interstate sale of wildlife illegally taken.
Todd said the company “made a vow to never have that problem again,” and is confident the current investigation does not involve his company.
“I don’t think we’ve done anything wrong,” he said. “In fact, I know we haven’t.”
Undersized oysters and crabs and oysters poached from sanctuaries find markets. In 2014, the Maryland Natural Resources Police stopped a tractor-trailer from Virginia on Route 50 in Easton; they found 187 bushels of illegal oysters because too many in each - 50 bushels' worth - were smaller than the legally harvestable size. More recently, between October 2016 and February 2017, NRP officers caught four men harvesting oysters without a license, and taking them from sanctuaries. The oysters were sold to Southern Connection Seafood in Crisfield, according to NRP. Three of the four were also charged with falsifying public records on their catch; no charges were filed against the seafood business.
(As originally posted, the Virginia oyster harvest limits were misstated. The Bay Journal regrets the error.)