By Rex Springston
Newport News — Matt Dize and Bryant Stephens like watermen, and they like catching them when they steal oysters.
“It’s like a cat and mouse game,” Dize said.
Dize, 30, and Stephens, 25, are officers of the Virginia Marine Police, a 150-year-old force that patrols the state’s tidal waters.
Watermen “don’t make a ton of money,” and some fall to the temptation to make more by poaching, Stephens said.
“There are some bad apples. ... We come across the same watermen on a constant basis,” Dize said.
Dize and Stephens patrolled the James and Pagan rivers Tuesday, starting at dawn, when a ribbon of orange wedged under the pewter sky on the eastern horizon. The gloomy sky turned glorious blue about midmorning.
Dize drove the 30-foot patrol boat with twin 300-horsepower Mercury motors. He pulled beside some low-slung work boats — classic Chesapeake Bay deadrises — where watermen hydraulically lifted baskets of oysters in a process called dredging or hand scraping.
The boats moved in circles, working these private grounds — oyster beds leased from the state — in a methodical fashion, like mowing a lawn.
Among their tricks, some poachers will slide their boats from public oyster grounds to a private bed or an oyster sanctuary and illegally take those oysters.
There is no excuse for that, the officers said. For a waterman, the signs and stakes that mark oyster beds and sanctuaries are as familiar as street signs to a city boy.
“If a waterman tells you he doesn’t know where he is, he’s lying,” Stephens said.
The worst poachers — say those working in sanctuaries, where oysters are protected — can lose their commercial waterman’s license for up to two years. But more often the punishment is a court fine of $100 to $200.
Some watermen consider the gain worth the risk, the officers said.
“They live in the now. ... It’s all about making money now,” Dize said.
Dize would like Virginia to authorize lifetime license revocations.
As the officers began to head back to a Newport News marina, Stephens said, “I’m a fan of the tradition” of working the water.
“You earn every penny,” Dize replied.