Poachers have devastated three thriving, taxpayer-funded oyster research reserves in the Choptank River, taking about 61,000 bushels of healthy 2-year-old oysters from sites where scientists were learning more about the oysters' crucial role in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, according to state biologists and fishery managers.
The three reefs were created in 1997 at a cost of about $87,000 as part of a continuing experiment in oyster restoration by the Army Corps of Engineers, with help from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
FOR THE RECORD - In yesterday's Maryland section, The Sun incorrectly reported the amount of oysters illegally taken from three Choptank River research reserves. The actual amount was an estimated 500 to 800 bushels.
The Sun regrets the errors.
"What's much greater than the value of the oysters is the worth of the knowledge that was lost," said Ken Paynter, a University of Maryland biologist. "We had a lot more to learn both about the oysters and about the community that was growing up around them."
The reserves, at British Harbor, Beacons and Goose Point in the Choptank on the Eastern Shore, were part of a network of at least 16 oyster study sites in Maryland waters, all off-limits to oystering. Under contract to the corps, Paynter has been studying the reserves since 1998, keeping track of the oysters' health and of their ability to provide a haven for other bay life.
Three times a year, Paynter said, divers measured the oysters, checked them for diseases and kept tabs on the other creatures growing on the reefs.
The results were encouraging. The reefs, which once were widespread throughout the bay but have virtually disappeared after centuries of dredging, were attracting abundant life. Their hatchery-bred oysters had grown to market size with no sign of the diseases that have ravaged the bay's wild stocks, Paynter said.
Then, during the May inspection at Beacons, "the divers came up and said, `They're all gone,'" Paynter recalled.
All but a handful of the reef's 20,700 bushels of oysters had disappeared. The few that remained had been smashed into the mud, apparently by a dredge like those used legally by the Maryland skipjack fleet, Paynter said.
"It appears they were dredged, but we can't say that for sure," the biologist said. "We have no idea how many times it was hit, whether it was one or 100 times. All we can say is that the oysters are gone."
At British Harbor and Goose Point, about 90 percent of the oysters had been taken, apparently by tongs, Paynter said. He reported the loss to the Department of Natural Resources in May.
During this oyster season, which opened Oct. 2, agency managers will post signs warning people to keep out of the reserves. They originally thought the reserves would be safer from poaching if they were not marked, said Eric Schwab, director of the DNR's fisheries division. After the incident, officials realized that leaving the reserves unmarked made it more difficult to catch poachers.
Paynter said whoever took the oysters might not have known the area was off-limits, but Schwab said that was unlikely. The reserve boundaries were hashed out at public meetings attended by watermen, he said.
Lt. Col. Tammy Broll, chief of the DNR's Natural Resources Police, said there isn't much her officers can do to catch the poachers. The maximum penalty is $500 for a first offense, she said, and repeat offenders can lose their licenses.
The cases are tried in the county where the poaching took place, Broll said, and judges usually won't convict poachers unless a police officer witnesses the illegal taking and uses satellite navigation gear to verify that it took place inside a reserve.
"More than anything else, we want to make sure this doesn't happen again," Schwab said. "In the coming years, there's going to be not only many more reserves, but we're going to be spending a fair amount of money on them."