Someday in the not too distant future (they don't want to spoil the surprise), Natural Resources Police officers will be able to flip a switch and watch Chesapeake Bay boat traffic from Charm City to the mouth of the Potomac River, day or night.
Why do I bring this up in an outdoors column? Because the multimillion-dollar network of cameras and radar designed to protect vital sites, such as the Port of Baltimore, the Bay Bridge and the LNG docks and nuclear power plant at Calvert Cliffs, will have a second use: to police fishing, crabbing and oystering activity.
The Maryland Law Enforcement Information Network will peel back fog and darkness to give officers a clear view of poachers stealing from oyster sanctuaries or leased aquaculture areas. They will be able to document someone casting a net out of season or power dredging after midnight.
State officials say that while the technology is being used elsewhere in the country - in Florida for immigration control and in Houston and Long Beach, Calif., for harbor traffic management - MLEIN will expand that capability.
"We are one of the first, if not the first, to use it for natural resource protection," says Tim Bowman, who heads the project for Natural Resources Police.
The equipment will be affixed to towers and mounted on the decks of patrol boats. Information will be transmitted to the new NRP command center just outside Sandy Point State Park, where it will be monitored by dispatchers around the clock.
Poachers have their own communications network. Cell phone and marine radios are the early-warning equivalent of Paul Revere gone rogue while onboard radar alerts them to fast-approaching vessels.
They also have the advantage of being able to duck into tributaries and coves for cover.
The NRP, though, has the advantage of high-tech equipment. Night-vision goggles, for instance, recently helped police arrest four Tilghman Island men at 1:30 a.m. on oyster poaching charges.
MLEIN helps tip the playing field further.
For example, let's say the state creates an oyster sanctuary in Harris Creek, which runs parallel to the eastern shore of Tilghman Island.
"We can set up invisible picket lines so that when a vessel passes through, say, at 2 o'clock on a February morning, an alarm will go off in the command center," Bowman says. "A dispatcher can tag the target and track it, allowing officers to intercept it immediately, keep it under surveillance to see who else might be involved or choose a spot to board it after backup has arrived or meet it at the dock."
NRP Lt. Dave Gough says the system will store the information so it can be used as evidence in a court case.
"We'll have the incident, from start to finish, that a judge can review," he says.
Using another communications tool, Blue Force Tracker, a dispatcher can determine which law enforcement vessel - county, state or federal - is closest to a targeted commercial boat. And information can be distributed to other marine patrol agencies.
In addition to its own cameras, NRP is hoping to tap into the radar installations at Patuxent River Naval Air Station and a Navy research lab near Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County to provide coverage from the Bay Bridge to Cove Point in Calvert County and share law enforcement information.
MLEIN will have one more mission: to assist with search-and-rescue operations.
The same technology that will allow NRP to nab poachers can also be used to determine whether a fire on the bay is a vessel in distress or a beach bonfire, an emergency flare or fireworks. It will also cut down on the number of times officers are tricked into responding to phony distress calls.
"Traditionally, in search-and-rescue, we have to wait for our officers to arrive at the scene to assess the situation," Sgt. Art Windemuth says. "Imagine being able to see it instantly and supply real-time information to responding units."
MLEIN radar will have 6-12 miles of detection capability. Daytime cameras and infrared units that recognize the heat signatures of vessels have a range of 3-5 miles. "Part of our goal is to be able to pick up the image of a human being at a mile or two," Bowman says.
NRP and the Fisheries Service will decide where to place towers and poles and will use some existing structures as lookout points. The system is being built so that it can be expanded as money becomes available.
Officials are reluctant to pull out a coverage map or discuss many details, remembering a time not too long ago when vandals cut down NRP towers on Chesapeake islands.
But given the renewed attention of the governor and the General Assembly, it's safe to assume that electronic eyeballs will keep careful watch over high-value oyster bars and sanctuaries in the Choptank River, Harris Creek and Broad Creek on the Eastern Shore and the open water between the mouths of the Patapsco and Middle rivers.
Officers can't wait to see the look on the faces of poachers when they roar out of the darkness to catch them red-handed.
It will be, says Capt. Quincy Shockley, "a real force multiplier."
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