By Tamara Dietrich
Oyster poaching in Virginia about to get real, with stiffer fines and penalties
Just as poor oyster harvests are looming on the horizon, the state is cracking down on oyster poachers, with harsher penalties set to kick in July 1.
The new law gives the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) the authority to revoke commercial and recreational fishing licenses for up to five years (the current maximum is two years), levy fines of up to $10,000 and place a lien on a poacher's vessel or vehicle if the fine goes unpaid for six months.
"Oyster thieves are on notice," VMRC commissioner John Bull said in a statement Tuesday. "This new law escalates the potential punishments for egregious violations of our tidal natural resources."
The General Assembly and Gov. Terry McAuliffe enacted the stricter penalties earlier this year to combat chronic poaching from oyster sanctuaries, public reefs and privately leased water bottoms.
Virginia Marine Police Chief Rick Lauderman said serious oyster violations are on the rise despite more intensive efforts to combat poaching.
"The vast majority of commercial watermen are honest and law-abiding," Lauderman said. "But a relatively small number of thieves continue to cause a serious problem that is not diminishing."
VMRC regulates fisheries in the state and also oversees the Marine Police.
The commission has stepped up license revocations in recent years, revoking 16 licenses for oyster poaching last year. So far this year, they've already revoked 14 licenses, with more pending. By comparison, the commission revoked only 18 licenses from 1998 through 2013.
Summonses and inspections are also rising. Last year, the Marine Police issued 219 summonses to suspected poachers, compared to 69 in 2010. Last year, they conducted 25,279 oyster inspections, more than double the 12,600 conducted in 2010.
Commercial oystermen have enjoyed huge harvests for the past two years, raking in 504,000 bushels last year and 409,000 the previous year.
But annual surveys found poor spat sets in 2013 and 2014, signaling leaner harvests for the 2015-16 season that begins this fall.
A spat set is when oyster larvae attach to bottom shell and grow until they reach market size, or about three years.
Oysters were once plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, but were decimated by disease, pollution and overfishing.
For years, the state has been working to restore the stock by curtailing harvests, building up oyster reefs and restricting the fishing season.
Experts say the stock isn't being overfished now, but the population does experience natural fluctuations, and VMRC's Shellfish Management Advisory Committee is considering a range of options to curtail the harvest next season.