- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) In 1864, Virginia created its own “Oyster Navy” to keep poachers away from rich beds of the briny bivalve. Now, with the Chesapeake Bay oyster struggling to survive, Virginia marine officials are considering a revival of those enforcement efforts.

The “zero tolerance” crackdown on oyster harvest violations could begin as early as Oct. 1, if regulators approve the effort.

Under the proposed get-tough policy, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission would revoke fishing licenses for up to two years for anyone convicted of illegally taking oysters from a designated sanctuary, during closed seasons, from polluted waters, from an aquaculture farm, or from private shellfish beds.

First-time offenders could face revocations as well. Repeat violators could expect their licenses to be pulled for longer periods, depending on the severity of the case, said Col. Rick Lauderman, chief of the Virginia Marine Police the contemporary equivalent of the Oyster Navy.

“Our instructions are to be vigilant,” Col. Lauderman said. “Offenders can expect no warnings.”

The idea stems from a panel of scientists, environmentalists, government officials, seafood merchants and watermen who met over the past year to chart a new course for reviving native stocks.

“Strong enforcement of fishery regulations and substantial patrolling of Virginia’s sanctuaries and harvest areas are critical elements necessary for successful oyster restoration,” according to the panel’s final report, issued this summer.

The panel noted that many state judges levy fines for oyster violations that “provide little deterrent to those intent on violating the rules.”

Jim Wesson, state director of oyster restoration, described poaching and piracy as “minor problems” in the Bay. “It happens,” he said, “but to be honest, there’s not a lot left out there to take.”

Virginia’s Eastern Shore, with its abundance of seaside coves and creeks, is where poachers have targeted most of their illegal activities.

The biggest heist occurred at a restored reef near Cobb Island in 2005. Some 133,000 market-size oysters, plus another 265,000 baby oysters, were taken, said Barry Truitt, a senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy.

During the days of the Virginia Oyster Navy, many Eastern Shore residents built “watch houses” to monitor their privately leased beds. Some still exist, and some are still in use.

“We need more marine patrols on the water,” Mr. Truitt said. “That’s the only way. Without enforcement, these reefs are nothing but paper sanctuaries.”

The Virginia Marine Police today consists of 77 officers, 59 of whom conduct on-the-water patrols. They must watch 5,200 miles of tidal shoreline.

The Marine Police will be on high alert on Oct. 1, when harvesting begins.

“We’ll make it work,” Col. Lauderman said. “We have to.”

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