By Rebecca Lessner
As oyster farming grows in Maryland, legislators moved to protect the product that protects the Chesapeake Bay by enacting HB 287, to help leaseholders of aquaculture plots — oyster beds suspended in open water cages — to recoup damages from poachers.
Those caught poaching would be subject to pay three times the cost of their illegal harvest directly to aquaculture farmers, who are collectively leasing 4,000 acres of the Maryland Bay.
“The state of Maryland has a long history with getting this industry up and running and it’s about ready to take off, as long as we don’t kill it,” said Bill Sponsor Del. Tony O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s.
According to O’Donnell, smaller aquaculture farmers are being hit hard when poachers damage their plots.
Through Submerged Land Leases as well as Water Column Leases from the state, farmers are able to legally grow and harvest oysters on dedicated plots in the Chesapeake Bay. There are currently 319 oyster aquaculture leaseholders within the state, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Oysters not only filter bay waters, but also are a key anchor in the ecosystem, creating a foundation for bay grasses, which in turn shelter grass shrimp, rockfish and crabs.
In 2010, Maryland opened 600,000 new acres of the Chesapeake Bay to be leased for oyster harvesting since the current leases were maxed out.
DNR has been accepting new applicants for aquaculture plots since the expansion. Just last year, the value for aquaculture equaled $3 million and the wild harvest exceeded $14 million.
Since industry is growth is new, the Natural Resources Police (NRP) are still focusing primarily on enforcing oyster protection around “sanctuaries,” state protected oyster-beds that are not harvested.
While officers will respond to calls from aqua-farmers, they are not patrolling aquaculture areas as heavily they do oyster-sanctuaries.
Candy Thomson, public information officer for Maryland NRP, said the department recognized a need for a crackdown on poaching two years ago, with the implementation of the Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network. This radar works around the clock to monitor commercial fishing practices.
The radar sends an alert to NRP officers whenever a trespasser enters a restricted zone. Thompson compared the system to a “Swiss Army knife,” having more uses than originally intended, including watching oyster sanctuaries. The radar can be used to track poachers outside of sanctuaries, but officers only respond when they get a complaint of poaching.
Earlier this season, Adam Rodney Antes, 32, of Nanticoke, was intercepted by the Natural Resources Police (NRP) in Somerset County while poaching oysters on protected land.
Antes had two bushels of undersized oysters on board his boat, if found guilty of charges he faces a maximum penalty of $8,000. NRP reported this as the third oyster-related charge Antes has received in the last year.
The market price of oysters fluctuates, sometimes the profits of poaching can outweigh the fines. Because of this poachers charged are often repeat offenders.
According to the 2014 Oyster Season Enforcement Report, NRP issued 131 citations and 160 warnings for various oyster violations last year.
Now, aquaculture farmers are also experiencing the effects of poaching.
“These growers cannot lock their doors when they leave their business at the end of the day,” said O’Donnell. “The NRP does not have the personnel to watch them all the time.”
According to O’Donnell, his constituents say the Natural Resources Police are stretched too thin, unable to boat to the oyster bed before the poachers have left.
Now, if the farmer is able to capture video footage and the poacher is caught afterwards by the NRP, they are liable to the leaseholder for damages three times the value of the shellfish harvested, restoration costs and attorney fees.
Oyster Restoration = Bay Restoration
O’Donnell believes helping aquaculture growth in Maryland will also help clean up the bay, as oysters filter phosphorous and nitrogen out of its waters.
“Science has shown that one average oyster can filter fifty gallons of water a day, yet we often forget that as an oyster grows larger, its filtering capabilities increase exponentially,” said the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland (CCA MD) in a letter to DNR.
In order to help these oysters grow larger and increase their population across the bay, conservation advocacy groups are using volunteer programs.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has been using volunteers to protect baby oysters, called “spat,” in oyster gardens until they are able to mature. Each volunteer grows 1,000 to 2,000 spat in wire mesh cages, suspended from piers into the Bay, over a nine-month period.
In June, the full-grown oysters are returned to CBF, who will then plant the mature oysters in sanctuary reefs. Volunteers who want to continue gardening will pick up a new round of spat, beginning the process again.
With help from oyster gardeners, CBF planted 29 million juvenile oysters throughout the bay last year, with 23.8 million in Maryland.