Where are all of the oysters? Photo: BeautifulRust, Flickr
In Maryland, there is the added concern that poachers are primarily bagging wild Eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica), which are severely depleted. "We are at less than one percent of our historic population in the Chesapeake Bay right now," says Mike Naylor, shellfish program director, Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Police use night-vision technology to search for criminals who are known to mark oyster beds with milk-jugs and glow sticks easing their return after dark. But poachers are upping the technology to escape being caught. "They're using radar, cell phones and spotters. They know where our police boats are tied, and they get a call when our boats leave the dock. They're going to extreme measures," says Naylor.
In Washington state, a similar cat-and-mouse drama is playing out as Fish and Wildlife officials crackdown on illegal oyster poaching on the Hood Canal. Late-night poachers here have taken several hundred thousand dollars worth of stolen shellfish from tidelands and beaches where they were not permitted to harvest.
According to a Seattle Times article, Wildlife Detective Paul Buerger conservatively estimates that 300,000 oysters and 1,000 pounds of hard-shell clams have been snagged illegally.
In Maryland, officials are not only worried about how poaching will affect depleted stocks, they're also concerned that oysters may be illegally harvested in areas unsafe for human consumption.
"A considerable portion of the Chesapeake Bay is off-limits to shellfishing because of health concerns -- basically high bacterial counts in the water. When people are poaching, there's potential for them to stray into those areas," says Naylor.