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Virginia Marine Police issue over 100 citations for oyster poaching

More than 100 charges were filed and served over the weekend against 10 Gloucester County watermen who are accused of harvesting oysters well over the daily bushel limit and other infractions, reported Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) spokesman John Bull on Tuesday.

The watermen were charged on November 19, 2012 after Marine Police First Sergeant Herbert Bell surprised them at the dock when they pulled up in their boats after oystering in the Rappahannock River, said Bull.

The investigation of buyer records—including copies of checks written to the watermen as payment for their catches—showed nine of these watermen routinely over-harvested, some for more than two weeks and even after they were caught at the dock that day with too many oysters.

Sergeant Bell obtained a search warrant to examine the VMRC’s mandatory harvest reports and discovered the 10 watermen had filed catch reports that stated they only caught their daily possession limit. As a result, they were charged with filing false harvest reports with the agency.

Several of these watermen had prior convictions for fisheries violations, said Bull. Three were convicted of separate oyster violations in the James River.

Regarding the alleged Middlesex offenses, a search warrant was necessary because state law prohibits the release of individual catch data without a court order. The warrant was issued by a Newport News magistrate. A total of 115 misdemeanor charges against 10 men were filed in Middlesex County District Court on Friday, March 8, and served on the defendants over the weekend. Several were charged with more than 20 counts each.

They face thousands of dollars in fines, potential jail time, and suspension by the VMRC of their commercial fishing licenses for up to two years—the most allowed under state law.
“Poaching epidemic”

“Oyster poaching now borders on an epidemic,” said VMRC Commissioner Jack Travelstead. “We have worked long and hard to rebuild the oyster stocks and we will not see them pillaged by unscrupulous thieves and watermen who are willing to cut corners.”

Since January 2011, the Virginia Marine Police have issued 500 citations for oyster violations. This is almost four times the usual number, with a conviction rate of 76% so far. Roughly 230 citations have yet to be adjudicated in court, including the most recent charges. “We will not stand for this type of behavior,” said Travelstead. “This plundering of the public’s oyster stocks must stop, and I guarantee you the Marine Police will not let up until this problem is solved. The majority of watermen are honest people just trying to make a living and respect the laws necessary to maintain sustainable fisheries. Most are as concerned as we are that oyster poaching has become so rampant.”

Ongoing Virginia Marine Police operations to protect a resurgent oyster population has resulted in 500 citations issued to commercial watermen over the past two years for violating oyster catch restrictions, said Bull.

The offenses ranged from harvesting too many oysters, poaching them from sanctuaries, stealing them from privately-leased ground, and illegally harvesting them at night.

Read the rest of this story in this week’s Southside Sentinel at newstands throughout the county, or sign up here to receive a print and/or electronic pdf subscription.

posted 03.13.2013

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