By Rona Kobell
From his laptop, Tim Bowman can see the Chesapeake Bay, and he is watching it closely.
Nine cameras provide real-time footage of all the boats on the water. From the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal down to the Tangier Sound, there are tankers, tugs and pleasure boats. A few hardy souls are oystering, but not many — it’s one of those cold wintry days.
A computer program overlays the video information on a color-coded map that shows landmarks, buoys and oyster sanctuaries. It all comes up neatly on his small screen — and much more vividly on the projection screen at the Sandy Point State Park communication center where the Natural Resources Police communications staff work the phones. If one of the commercial harvest boats ventures into an oyster sanctuary, dispatchers and officers will hear an alarm. Dispatchers will be able to click on the location, determine the name and owner of the boat, and send an officer to the boat’s home dock to check the suspicious boat, all within a few minutes.
The $5.6 million system, known as MLEIN (Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network) is helping Maryland nab poachers — elusive scofflaws that have for decades escaped harsh punishments because of weak laws and lenient judges. No more. Maryland’s dragnet is using a several-pronged approach to safeguard its multimillion-dollar investment in oyster sanctuaries and make sure that a few “bad apples” don’t ruin commercial and recreational fishing for everyone.
“It is not the Wild West out there anymore,” said Bowman, program manager for MLEIN and a former captain in the Anne Arundel County Police Department. “The good guy knows where the bad guy is, but the bad guy doesn’t know where the good guy is.”
Chesapeake Bay law enforcement has come a long way in the last decade, when a few high-profile poaching incidents forced managers in both Maryland and Virginia to re-evaluate the way they caught and prosecuted those who stole oysters or rockfish in the dead of night. In December 2000, thieves took nearly all of the oysters from three large sanctuary reserves in the Choptank River that University of Maryland scientists had been monitoring. A few years later, several watermen were cited for taking oysters from a sanctuary in the Severn River. At the time, the penalty for poaching was $500 — a small price to pay if the outing netted a waterman several weeks’ worth of his oyster allotment.
Today, the police can take away a poacher’s license for three years if he breaks the rules. That includes oystering at night, whether a police officer catches him with a boatload of undersized oysters or not. That alone has cut down on oyster thieves plying the Bay after the oyster day ends.
“The one-and-done rule has helped immensely,” said Candus Thomson, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Police.
The Department of Natural Resources is also requiring buyers and sellers to provide better records in order to keep track of possibly ill-gotten gains. Janelle Mueller, DNR’s fisheries data and quota monitoring program manager, said that this new procedure helps with accountability. Knowing what was harvested and what was sold helps the department discern if any seafood is illegally entering the market, and how that is happening.
“We are making an attempt to shed light on business activity that was previously much more opaque,” Mueller said.
The MLEIN system was conceived as a way to watch the Baltimore Harbor and keep it safe from terrorism. At first it focused on watching boats from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal as they made their way into the Patapsco.
The radar system “gives you the advantage of tracking multiple targets,” Bowman said. But it further begged the question: Who was operating these vessels? What were they doing out in the Bay?
Next came video, to put a picture with the signal. The Naval Research Lab and the National Maritime Intelligence Organization put together a software package that combined mapping, video, radar, images and the ability to zero in on a target and learn more instantly.
Finally, there was the alarm system, to be triggered if a boat enters a sanctuary.
“The system is not meant to be manned unless needed,” Bowman said. “Part of the goal was that people wouldn’t have to watch it all the time.”
A case in point: Last summer, Bowman was at home on his laptop, talking to a software engineer in California and a police officer on his boat in Ocean City. All three were watching a fisherman they suspected was keeping rockfish during catch-and-release season. The officer met him at the dock with a citation.
Bowman said that “intelligence” plays a big part in the system — the police officers knowing the community, sensing and seeing patterns, and getting tips from the “street.” It was a combination of these factors that led to the department’s biggest bust in recent years. Police seized 187 bushels of undersized oysters from a commercial tractor-trailer on Route 50. They arrested the driver, who worked for a Virginia seafood company.
Altogether, the oyster harvest is the best it has been in years; in 2013, 642 watermen reported making part of their living oystering, compared with 363 just one year before. But oyster violations have dropped. The department handed out 187 in 2009–10 and 114 in 2012–13. It doesn’t yet have numbers for 2013–14.
Watermen have long claimed that a few bad apples were responsible for most of the crimes. Over the years, both police officials and DNR policy managers tended to agree. The new punishment structure has allowed the department to permanently take those scofflaws off the waterways.
In January, the department permanently revoked the oyster licenses of Joseph P. Janda, Edward B. Lowery, Benjamin S. Byers and Edward E. Grimes Jr. All four men had been cited multiple times for violations. Several other watermen lost licenses for a year, or a season.
“The general sentiment that our penalty staff hears is that watermen take these penalties seriously,” said Sarah Widman, DNR fisheries regulation officer.
They don’t have a choice, said Tommy Zinn, a longtime oysterman and president of the Calvert Watermen’s Association. Zinn doesn’t love the Big Brother aspect of MLEIN, but he’d be more OK with being watched if he knew that the police were following up the high-tech dragnet with good, old-fashioned police work.
Thomson said they are: 163 officers patrol across the state. But Zinn said he wants to make sure the watermen have a chance to explain their side of things if there’s a dispute.
For example, if the MLEIN system sounds an alarm because a waterman is on the boundary of a sanctuary, but doesn’t go in, Zinn wants to make sure the waterman doesn’t have to pay with his license. Watermen are given a booklet at the beginning of the season showing all of the sanctuaries, and they must sign to indicate they have received it and will abide by the rules. But sometimes, Zinn said, there can be misunderstandings about a line in murky conditions, or buoys marking a sanctuary that move in rough seas.
“I’d hate to see it get to the point where they’re suspending a license for a minor infraction,” he said.
In addition to protecting the Baltimore Harbor and nabbing poachers, MLEIN has also aided in several rescues. The Natural Resources Police shares its information with various police and fire departments. In the last year, the system has helped Anne Arundel County’s SWAT team respond to a barricaded suspect in a waterfront home. It also helped quickly find and rescue a fishing party whose boat had drifted away from them when they decided to take a swim.
Now that the system is in its adolescence, Bowman said, some growing pains are apparent. The police need a few more cameras, and they’d like to expand their coverage of the Chesapeake. But after four years, several million dollars, a few dramatic rescues and several high-profile arrests, Bowman would say that MLEIN is growing up nicely.
“The goal of this system is to make it easier for law enforcement to do its job, whatever that may be,” Bowman said.