Robert Blackwell can see the cops are coming as he pulls up his dredge, filled with oysters from the bottom of the St. Mary's River. Blackwell and his son, Wayne, finish culling their catch as the boat comes closer.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources Cpl. Catherine Peck waits until her boat is at a good stopping place, then greets the men like they're old friends. She spot-checks the half-dozen bushels of oysters the men have collected, does a quick mental note of safety procedures, then tells the men to have a good day. All in all, it's a far more pleasant experience than most people have when they get pulled over. And most watermen like it that way.
"This is their job," said Wayne Blackwell, of St. Clements Island. "If it weren't for them, there wouldn't be any oysters."
It's a good thing that most of these encounters are so amicable, because there are going to be a lot more of them. The Maryland DNR is stepping up its efforts to catch lawbreakers on the Bay.
The department has procured better and faster boats, dispatched more patrols on the water and increased penalties for violations. The department has also instituted a system of accountability for both seafood dealers and watermen so it can spot discrepancies in catch reports, figure out where the oysters are coming from and gather valuable information for restoration work.
In addition, the police, and scientists they have enlisted, are working with judges to make sure they understand the severity of fishing violations and their effect on the Bay. Taking undersize oysters, for example, means robbing them of a chance to reproduce and help repopulate the Bay.
The Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission, which has been studying oyster issues for years, didn't mince words about the problem in its most recent report.
"Currently, there is no single factor more important to the future of ecologic restoration and aquaculture than to address and dramatically reduce the ongoing illegal oyster harvesting activities," the report said.
The DNR began to look seriously at the consequences of poaching about two years ago. Last year, natural resources police became even more concerned about the problem when they realized the department issued 219 citations for the 2008-09 season, more than twice as many as it had the year before. And that was just with normal operations, said police spokesman Art Windemuth.
Since then, "there has been a pretty dramatic series of things," said Mike Naylor, a longtime scientist and manager at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources who was recently promoted to director of the shellfish program. "And it's a top-down thing. Everyone from the lowest level shellfish worker up to (Secretary of Natural Resources) John Griffin wants to better manage this fishery."
DNR Assistant Secretary Frank Dawson said the department needed the new patrols, but it also needed to change the system. The fines for poaching and other violations were too lenient, and judges often wouldn't take them seriously after hearing a docket of assault and drunken driving cases.
Just before oyster season began, the department began putting the new system together. Under the old system, a waterman could lose his license if he had three violations in two years. Under the new system, a waterman can lose his license for a single violation. The violations work like a sliding scale, just as they do for traffic violations and points on a license.
And, after years of trying to educate judges on the significance of oyster violations, DNR officials tried a different approach. They worked with Anne Arundel County to create a "DNR docket" so that all fishing violations are heard on the same day each month, in the same courtroom, with the same judge and the same prosecutor. Three months into the experiment, Anne Arundel County state's attorney Frank R. Weathersbee thinks it's going well.
"The way it was set before, it was just catch as catch can. Whenever there was free time, these cases were just stuck in there, so they were treated very lightly," Weathersbee said. "If judges sit one afternoon on a whole DNR docket, they become very cognizant. If they're the only cases they're hearing, they can't help but treat them seriously."
The stepped-up enforcement comes at a time when the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay is at less than 1 percent of its historic highs. As recently as 1982, Maryland oystermen harvested 2.3 million bushels of oysters, bringing in a dockside value of $20 million.
By 2004, the number dropped to only 26,000 bushels, with a dockside value of only $731,000, according to the department's records. As of Feb. 7, 110,751 bushels had been harvested in the 2009-10 season. "We might end up close to 140,000 this season," Naylor said.
Watermen still make a decent living with sales around Thanksgiving and Christmas. But with the price per bushel dropping and the cost of gas and boat maintenance rising, no one is getting rich off of a hard life on the water.
That truth is reflected in the number of watermen. By the end of last December, 244 watermen reported catching more than 100 bushels of oysters. Compare that to the 2,635 watermen who passed that mark by the end of December 1982 and one gets a sense of how many watermen are working, and how many oysters there are to catch.
As the harvest has dwindled, the state has stepped up its efforts to put more oysters in the Chesapeake, using millions of dollars in federal and state funds. Much of that is done through the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a coalition of government agencies and nonprofits that is working to restore the oyster population. Last fall, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced that the state had placed 750 million oysters reared in a University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science hatchery in the Bay-many of them in sanctuaries that are off-limits to harvesting.
Watermen know where these sanctuaries are; when they get their license, they have to sign a document saying they received the booklet mapping them. But some have given in to temptation and raided the sanctuaries.
In 2000, thieves wiped out three oyster reefs that had been planted in the Choptank River. A few years later, several watermen were cited for harvesting oysters from a sanctuary in the Severn River near Annapolis.
This season, DNR police caught one waterman illegally harvesting from a sanctuary in the Choptank River and another harvesting a sanctuary bar in Tangier Sound. At least four watermen, all of them from the Eastern Shore, had their licenses suspended this season for multiple violations. Among them was a Tilghman Island waterman with more than 30 convictions since 1983. Edward B. Lowery was already on a 10-day suspension for catching undersize oysters when police caught him power-dredging in the middle of the night in an area reserved for hand-tonging. As police approached him, he hid in the boat's cabin, according to a DNR statement of the case.
Another waterman, Zachary Seaman of Woolford, had multiple past convictions for possessing undersize crabs and oysters, catching well beyond his limit and oystering in a sanctuary. He lost his license for the season after police caught him with 31 bushels of oysters-more than twice the legal limit.
A third, Joseph Bruce Janda, of Wittman, was sentenced to jail for his violations, according to DNR officials. A St. Mary's County Judge sentenced him to a year in jail, with all but 90 days suspended, for catching large numbers of undersize oysters. Janda will not be able to apply for a fishing license for three years.
The fourth, John F. Riggs, of Rock Hall, was caught at 2:30 a.m. the day after Christmas harvesting oysters. A judge took away his license for an entire year, according to DNR spokesman Josh Davidsburg.
Sgt. Shawn Garren said that cases like those are an anomaly.
"Most of these guys are fairly decent," he said, "but 10 percent are causing 90 percent of the problems."
In the St. Mary's River, where the Blackwell men have been catching oysters for decades, almost everyone gets along and follows the law, Garren said. On a recent patrol, Peck and her partner, Cpl. Rick Starliper, gave only one verbal warning, and that was because a waterman did not have a sign visible from both sides of his boat. In the St. Mary's River area, police have issued nine citations this year. Most of those were for catching too many undersize oysters.
New technology is also helping the enforcers. Most police boats are equipped with night vision, which is what helped to snare Lowery. The natural resources police will also be tapping into the Department of Homeland Security radar known as the Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network to monitor all boat activities in certain places. While Dawson does not want to give away specific locations where the technology will be in place, he said high-profile spots such as the Bay Bridge and the Port of Baltimore are safe bets. The technology will be able to conduct video surveillance on the boats and submit that information in real time to the DNR police.
The department is also authorizing more overtime for patrols. And new boats have helped. Peck and her partner, Starliper, patrol on a 26-foot Sea-Arc, which is a lot faster than the 32-footer, built in 1976, that they used to have. Speed is essential, Starliper said, because once you check one waterman, "everyone knows you're here."
The department also needed better records of what was being caught where. Previously, the department only asked the dealers to report what they bought; now, they are also asking the watermen to report what they catch and to whom their catch is sold. The state's new procedures also help the department learn where the most productive bars are, which is useful information as management of the fishery continues to evolve.
For example, if the department wanted to institute a system of harvest caps, the new catch information shows where the oysters are coming from. It also helps decision makers, such as O'Malley, when they consider closing some of the most fertile oyster grounds to turn them into sanctuaries. And, as the state encourages more watermen to get into the aquaculture business, this information can help point to the best areas for leasing bottom and growing oysters.
Among the areas under consideration for a sanctuary is the St. Mary's River. The watermen Peck and Starliper encounter are worried about losing their livelihood entirely. Perhaps that's one reason why many are so cooperative; they want to show if they follow the law, they ought to be able to keep their livelihood.
Maryland watermen may have yet another incentive to follow the law: In 2008, Maryland received $15 million in emergency funding as a result of the crab restrictions that devastated many watermen. DNR officials have been using that money to pay watermen to clean oyster bars so they can set fresh spat on clean areas, and for other work such as collecting derelict ghost pots. The DNR won't hire any watermen with significant violations.
Unlike Maryland, Virginia hasn't stepped up its enforcement and penalties in the past year. But also unlike Maryland, Virginia isn't planting oysters en masse; it simply doesn't have the money, according to Virginia Marine Resources Commission spokesman John M.R. Bull. The agency's budget has taken a 30 percent hit, leaving it with 70 marine police and about that many boats to patrol an area from Tangier Sound to the North Carolina border.
Yet, Bull said, the system is effective. Naylor, who has watched it in action, agrees. Watermen who are caught violating the law have to come before the commission to explain themselves. The commission has the discretion to put watermen on a one-year probation, sometimes longer.
"We don't see many second violations," Bull said. "It would be truly appalling for a guy to stand up and say why they messed up in front of all their peers. They do not want to go through that twice."