EASTON -- It was supposed to be a red-letter day for the state Department of Natural Resources. But a bunch of would-be oyster poachers with a smart lawyer left the agency red-faced instead.
Twenty-one Chesapeake Bay watermen, charged with illegally harvesting oysters from a shellfish sanctuary near the mouth of the Choptank River, won acquittal in a Talbot County District Court room yesterday after a defense lawyer pointed out that the state had designated the wrong area as off-limits to work boats.
When authorities nabbed the defendants Nov. 15, they thought the watermen were working inside the Sharps Island oyster sanctuary. It was the biggest catch of watermen since the state's annual oyster season had begun in October.
Maryland Natural Resources Police, DNR's law enforcement arm, had hoped a mass trial and conviction would send a strong message to commercial fisherman not to tamper with efforts to preserve the state's dwindling oyster supply.
But yesterday's decision by Judge William H. Adkins III brought smiles and handshakes in a courtroom filled with the acquitted watermen and their colleagues, who had come to watch the trial because it was too windy to be on the bay.
Natural Resources Police said that the stunning loss wasn't their fault but that possibly it was the result of a technical blunder elsewhere in the DNR bureaucracy, which had set up the sanctuary.
Oyster sanctuaries are underwater areas set aside by the state to grow oysters that will be distributed into other parts of the bay later. It's illegal to catch oysters in a sanctuary, and a first-time violator can face a $500 fine.
Yesterday's court ruling caught Natural Resources officials by surprise. They had been stepping up air and water surveillance to help curtail illegal commercial fishing in the bay and its tributaries.
"A situation like this does give it a setback," said Lt. Col. Franklin I. Wood, deputy superintendent of the Natural Resources Police. "We're certainly quite concerned about it."
During the oyster season that ended a year ago, Natural Resources police gave watermen 417 citations for violating state laws. So far this season, 292 citations have been written.
Colonel Wood called the District Court ruling a loss for the bay's oyster resources, but he took the outcome philosophically.
"It's unfortunate in one sense," he said. "But it's fortunate in another for the men who were found not to be guilty. It shows that the system works."
In the Nov. 15 incident, using a Boston Whaler powerboat and a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter, police spotted and later issued citations to watermen on a dozen boats that had moved onto a 51-acre site marked by four buoys and commonly known as the Sharps Island oyster sanctuary, southwest of Tilghman Island.
Sharps Island, which long ago eroded into the bay, no longer exists. A lighthouse named after the island still stands not far from where the watermen were arrested and is a familiar aid to navigation.
An aerial photograph taken of the site just before the arrests clearly showed that 12 work boats had crossed the boundaries established by the markers, according to helicopter pilot Cpl. Wayne B. Stallings.
Corporal Stallings, who radioed his findings to marine police near Tilghman Island, also said watermen aboard four other work boats that were outside the boundaries were not arrested because it was thought they were working in legal waters.
But according to documents and maps provided by defense attorney Willard L. Parker II, who represented 18 of the 21 watermen, the actual Sharps Island sanctuary lies adjacent to and partially overlaps the area indicated by the buoys.
Mr. Parker said that when the sanctuary was created in the late 1980s, a different set of coordinates was used to set aside the legal oyster propagation area.
Mr. Parker also successfully argued that if the DNR had moved the sanctuary because it thought oysters would grow better in another location, there was no record to show that the agency had followed guidelines that require public hearings and advice from local watermen.
Colonel Wood said he's still not sure the sanctuary markers are improperly located. He has asked DNR officials to examine records to determine if the "second" sanctuary site had been located legally.
If so, he said, he will tell his police to continue enforcing regulations there.
Asked if he intended to return to the site, Tilghman Island waterman Gregory G. Phillips shook his head. "I'm not going back there," he said.