NORFOLK, Va. (AP)- Virginia officials say oyster poaching has become epidemic in the Chesapeake Bay.
Last year, the Virginia Marine Police logged 240 violations for illegal oyster harvesting. Some were for harvesting oysters intended to restore the bay's ailing stocks from protected sanctuaries, The Virginian-Pilot reported.
Police and shellfish experts say several factors have contributed to the increase in poaching, including a weak economy and fewer patrol officers on the water.
On the James River, some watermen pretend to work on privately leased grounds and then slip onto nearby public grounds, where they use dredges and scrapes to take oysters out of season , police and officials say.
Jim Wesson, state director of oyster restoration, said oysters on the Eastern Shore are pirated mostly by hand, "but with a dredge or a hand scrape, man, you can grab up a lot of oysters very quickly and get out of there."
State officials are discussing ways to combat the problem. They include revoking the licenses of repeat offenders more frequently. Oyster boats might be required to have GPS tracking devices so the marine police can keep better tabs on them without being on the water.
To be considered for revocation, a Virginia waterman must be found guilty of three offenses within a 12-month period. The harshest punishment a violator faces is a two-year loss of his license. Often, offenders and their licenses are put on probation.
In Maryland, a waterman who violates conservation laws five times over two years faces a maximum suspension of five years. In Rhode Island, waterman can permanently lose their licenses if they have four violations during their careers.
"Clearly, we have to get tougher, we have to get smarter," Jack Travelstead, director of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, told the newspaper.
Ken Smith, president of the Virginia Watermen's Association, said state should enforce the regulations it has.
Regulations make commercial fishing increasingly expensive and watermen are having a difficult time making ends meet, he said.
The state is bending over backward to "protect an industry they're trying to get going again. But our guys have to work. We need the work," Smith said.
Like blue crabs and other marine life, the bay's native oyster populations were devastated by overharvesting, loss of habitat and disease.
Scientists are working to restore oysters as part of a presidential order that spurred a federally led bay restoration strategy. Oysters are important to bay restoration because they are filter feeders that clean bay waters.