Natural Resources Police ramped up enforcement oyster power dredge season

Maryland’s six-month oyster season is now in its busiest phase with the opening of power dredge season, and the officers of the Natural Resources Police are ready for the challenge.

“Our mission from now until the end of March is to protect oysters that belong to the citizens of Maryland and protect the livelihoods of law-abiding watermen,” said DNR Secretary Joe Gill. “We will use every tool at our disposal, with officers in the air and on water and land, to inspect boats, wholesalers and retail outlets. There is no place in Maryland for oyster outlaws.”

Maryland has 1,100 licensed oyster harvesters. For the first month of the season, only hand tonging, patent tonging and diving are permitted. Power dredging—the most popular harvesting method–runs from Nov. 1 to March 31 in designated areas of Calvert, Dorchester, Somerset, St. Mary’s, Talbot and Wicomico counties. Wild oysters must be a minimum of three inches. The daily limit for power dredging is 12 bushels per person, not to exceed 24 bushels per boat.

Last season was a banner one for Maryland’s watermen, who harvested a total of 422,382 bushels with a dockside value of $14 million — the highest in at least 15 years. The good news continued in May, when Governor Martin O’Malley announced that the oyster population had more than doubled since 2010, reaching its highest point since fall surveying began in 1985. The improvement was sparked by high oyster survival over the past several years coupled with strong reproduction in 2010 and 2012.

But the availability of oysters did not deter poachers, who attempted to steal from sanctuaries and reserves, harvest undersized oysters and use out-of-the-way places and the cover of darkness to hide their activities.

NRP officers responded with an aggressive campaign, conducting saturation patrols of productive oyster beds with multiple vessels, using Maryland State Police helicopters as surveillance platforms, and employing the radar units and cameras of the Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network.

As a result, officers issued 131 Citations over six months—81 percent of them for harvesting undersized oysters, harvesting oysters in a protected area or using illegal equipment.

This season, NRP and DNR Fisheries Service are asking the public to help put the squeeze on the sale of undersized oysters from Maryland’s waters. Wild oysters must be a minimum of three inches. The daily limit for power dredging is 12 bushels per person, not to exceed 24 bushels per boat.

“A great first question with any seafood—including oysters—is asking where it’s from. Ask to see the oyster tags to ensure that what’s advertised as Maryland oysters are, in fact, Maryland oysters,” said Steve Vilnit, Fisheries Service marketing director. “The more people who vote with their fork, the better things are for local businesses, the health of the fishery, and the well-being of watermen and those involved in aquaculture.”

Citizens who suspect illegal harvesting or sale of oysters can anonymously call the Catch-A-Poacher hotline with tips: 800-635-6124.

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