Oyster Season Begins in Maryland - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Oyster Season Begins in Maryland

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MARYLAND - In a sure sign that fall is here, watermen in Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore today are kicking off the beginning of the six-month oyster harvest season.

“As the weather cools, the transition from harvesting blue crabs to oysters begins and we are again reminded of the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay and how it helps define us as Marylanders,” said DNR Secretary Joe Gill. “It is our responsibility to be good stewards and ensure that this tradition is protected for generations to come.”

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 season begins on Nov. 1, when harvest activity rises dramatically.

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. In addition, the 2013 Fall Oyster Survey indicated that the oyster population is continuing to increase, more than doubling since 2010 to reach its highest point since this type of monitoring began in 1985.

However, from a harvest of 15 million bushels in 1884, this population has dropped precipitously and since 1994 has languished at one percent of historic levels. The Chesapeake Bay's native oyster population historically supported a robust commercial fishery that was believed to have filtered the entire volume of the Bay's water every few days.

The 2010 Oyster Recovery Plan championed by Governor O'Malley provided a blueprint to rebuild and protect Maryland's oyster population - and its vital ecological functions - and bolster the industry it once supported.

That plan contained a vigorous law enforcement strategy that combined customary water patrols, aerial and radar surveillance, and inspection of wholesale and retail establishments. Violators can expect that their cases will be heard in district court before a judge well-versed in natural resources law.

“Last season once again demonstrated the benefit of having our officers, the State Police aviation unit, Office of the Attorney General and our District Court judges working in concert,” said Col. George F. Johnson IV, NRP superintendent. “As a result, NRP officers issued 131 citations and 160 warnings for offenses, ranging from possession of undersized oysters to harvesting in protected areas.”

Saturation patrols targeted known poaching hot spots and areas set aside as oyster sanctuaries. NRP officers flew as observers on State Police helicopters 17 times during the season to monitor compliance and protect sanctuaries. Already this year, the law enforcement partnership has resulted in the arrest of two watermen for illegally clamming on natural oyster beds in Eastern Bay.

The further refinement of the Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network (MLEIN) - a network of radar-and-cameras - has enhanced the ability of NRP officers to monitor and track illegal activities.

Tougher penalties, authorized by the General Assembly, have created a “one and done” revocation process for the most egregious offenders and increased the penalty for engaging in commercial fishing with a suspended license, a revoked license or without a license, by establishing a fine of up to $25,000 and imprisonment for up to one year.

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