In one of the largest oyster cases in recent years, the Maryland Natural Resources Police Wednesday night arrested a Virginia truck driver and seized a tractor-trailer filled with oysters, many of them undersized.
Rhoderick J. Newman, 66, of Tappahannock, was charged with one count of attempting to transport undersized oysters out of state and five counts of possession of undersized and unculled oysters. The truck, owned by Cowart Seafood Corp., of Lottsburg, Va., is being held in an NRP impoundment lot.
The maximum fine for the offense is $1,000 per bushel.
The investigation is continuing.
“There is no excuse for any amount of oyster poaching, let alone what happened here. A blatant disregard for our fishery is a slap in the face to responsible watermen, and all Marylanders,” said DNR Secretary Joseph P. Gill. “I want to congratulate our officers, and entire team, for a job well done.”
Acting on a tip, officers pulled over the truck, which was westbound on U.S. 50 in Easton. The truck was directed to a parking lot for a cargo inspection.
Officers found that the truck contained 188 bushels of oysters. Working by the light of their vehicle headlights, 17 officers and cadets measured every oyster, an operation that lasted more than six hours.
All but one of the bushels contained oysters below the legal minimum of three inches. The percentage of undersized oysters in each bushel ranged from six percent to 46 percent, which is beyond Maryland’s five-percent tolerance level. That made 187 bushels illegal.
The tractor-trailer load represents the daily limit of 16 oystermen power dredging and is worth more than $8,000, according to the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service.
The approximately 50 bushels of undersized oysters, which filled the bed of a one-ton pick-up truck, were separated from the legal cargo and returned to an Eastern Shore oyster sanctuary.
This is the halfway point of Maryland’s six-month oyster harvesting season, a time when poachers tend to seek out undersized oysters to make up for the increasing scarcity of the resource.
Since the start of the season in October, NRP has been conducting saturation patrols by boat and aerial surveillance from Maryland State Police helicopters with long-range cameras. In addition, the agency is making full use of its newest tool, a system of radar units and cameras called the Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network, MLEIN, which allows officers to track vessels and “see” over the horizon.
MLEIN has been used to make several oyster poaching cases so far this season, said Col. George F. Johnson IV, NRP superintendent.
“When the season began, we promised to get the poachers from the air and from the water. Now, we are getting them on the highways and back roads and we’re seizing their trucks,” said Johnson. “Our mission and message is simple: ‘We will get you.’”
The 2010 Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan, fostered by Governor Martin O’Malley, contains a robust enforcement component to protect the resource, habitat and sanctuaries.
“When the Governor initiated his oyster recovery plan, enforcement was a key component to assure the public that its investment would be protected,” Johnson said. “Stepped-up patrols, MLEIN and information from the public, helps us keep our promise to everyone who loves the Chesapeake Bay and its bounty, and believes in its future. Poachers are learning that there is nowhere to hide.”