Catch an Oyster Thief — If You Can
Why Some Poaching Pays Off
Lieutenant Art Windemuth standing looking at camera. Credit: Michael W. Fincham
Poaching on private oyster leases is a perennial problem, says Lieutenant Art Windemuth, the man in charge of the marine police who patrol the rivers and Bay waters of the southern-most counties of Maryland's lower Eastern Shore. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

LIEUTENANT ART WINDEMUTH IS THINKING about trying oyster farming when he retires — but he knows he wouldn't be able to sleep well at night. The lieutenant has put in nearly 30 years with the Maryland Natural Resources Police and is now commanding officer for the lower Eastern Shore counties. His territory includes rivers like the Nanticoke and Wicomico, waterways where oyster farmers have been planting shell and seed oysters on slices of river bottom that they lease from the state of Maryland.

He hears plenty of stories about one persistent problem oyster farmers face. He will usually get a phone call if someone is spotted hauling up oysters from a farmer's lease area without permission. He won't get a call if it happens in the dark or in a fog. Most people have a name for that kind of unauthorized harvesting off a private lease. They call it poaching. Windemuth is not most people, he's a policeman and he calls it theft.

The problem with being a cop is that he knows how easy it is to commit this kind of crime and how hard it is to catch the criminal. He would like to get his own leases and plant his own oysters, but he would want a waterfront home so he could keep an eye out for intruders on his underwater farm. Not many oyster farmers own waterfront property, so most of them spend some of their time at home wondering what's happening out on the water. Is someone else dragging a dredge over the leased bottom and scooping up their oysters? "I know the way I am about things," says the lieutenant, "and I know I wouldn't be able to stop thinking about it."

There's been a lot of thinking about the problem of poaching on large oyster sanctuaries in the mainstem of the Bay. The Natural Resources Police recently launched a high-tech crackdown against that kind of poaching with a much-publicized system called MLEIN, short for Maritime Law Enforcement Network. It includes eight towers in undisclosed locations that hold cameras and radar and software that can be accessed by officers back in headquarters or out on patrol. The system creates a "geo-fence" around large sanctuaries and alerts local marine police when anyone crosses the fence. It also lets officers take video of the poachers at work and helps with tracking and arresting them.

There has not, however, been much high-tech thinking about catching poachers on private leases. There is no "geo-fence" around a private oyster lease. Instead there's usually a lease marker — a buoy or bamboo pole or stake sticking up out of the water — and that's where the problem starts, says Windemuth. A farmer has to mark his plot with a small sign showing the lease license number and the initials of the leaseholder. The sign on the pole helps a farmer find his oyster grounds. It also helps a thief.

Corporal Liz Tyler (foreground) and Officer Gina Tyler. Credit: Michael W. Fincham
Bamboo poles and a sign are used to mark the location of a private lease held by oyster farmers. The signs are required by law, but sometimes serve to attract oyster poachers. Corporal Liz Tyler (foreground) and Officer Gina Tyler of the Maryland Natural Resources Police patrol the lower Nanticoke River looking for evidence of poaching activity. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

To prevent theft most private businesses have four walls and a security system and probably a safe somewhere inside. An oyster farmer has a lease marker that, in effect, says, "Here are my oysters." Think about a bank that sets its money outside on the sidewalk with a sign, says Windemuth. "How long would that money last?"

What's a farmer to do when he sees or hears about someone robbing his lease? His first option: call Art Windemuth or someone else at the Natural Resources Police. That's what John Barnette did when he saw someone harvesting on one of his leases on the lower Wicomico River. Then he watched the poacher for 25 minutes and met the police officer when he drove up 40 minutes later. That's a pretty good response time for such a remote location. Bank robberies happen in the middle of towns, but oyster lease robberies happen in the middle of hard-to-reach rivers. The thief was gone by the time the officer arrived so he did not personally witness the theft. There was no arrest.

The second option for an oyster farmer: file a criminal complaint with the District Court Commissioner. Barnette tried that one, too. It meant he had to run his own investigation. He had to get the name, address and boat location of the thief, and then drive to Salisbury to file the complaint. The police could then launch an investigation.

Investigations are time-consuming. They can involve interviewing witnesses and canvassing local harbors and boatyards. Marine police officers working their rivers along the Eastern Shore try to keep in touch with local watermen and farmers and boaters, much like cops working the city streets in Baltimore. Local knowledge helps them identify suspects and target their investigations.

The next steps can include marine stakeouts: officers in boats hiding in creeks or coves, sometimes at night, waiting for a suspect to cruise onto a private lease area and start stealing oysters. There's nothing high-tech about catching these poachers. It takes old-fashioned police work.

It also takes time and officers, boats and helicopters, and the Natural Resources Police don't have as many of them as they used to. In 2005 they had 353 law enforcement officers as a result of taking on law enforcement duties for Maryland's system of state parks, state forests, and wildlife management areas. That force has now shrunk to 230 officers, 21 large patrol boats, and no helicopters.

Losing a helicopter was particularly damaging, says Windemuth, especially during an era of staff reductions. "The helicopter was a force multiplier," he says. "It allowed us to cover more areas quickly. With a copter we can fly all the tribs from Dorchester through Somerset [Counties] within two hours." Covering the territory in a patrol boat takes nearly 12 hours, says Windemuth, and costs more money.

The poaching problem, ironically enough, may have gotten worse ever since the state of Maryland in 2010 launched new programs to encourage oyster farming. Barnette says he saw more poaching along the Wicomico last year than he had had seen in his 40 years working on the river. Under new leasing regulations growers who were not working their grounds had to turn in their old leases, and the change in regulations created some unexpected results — expired lease grounds were now open to legal harvesting by anyone during oyster season. The problem: many of those old leases where nobody was farming were near or next to active leases. As a result watermen could slide from harvesting legal grounds to poaching private farm grounds.

Those active leases, you remember, had markers, but many lease holders found that their poles and stakes had been pulled and their signs destroyed. That technique, of course, creates "plausible deniability," says Barnette. If caught, a poacher can say he didn't know where he was.

Officer Gina Tyler trades local news with Josh Laird. Credit: Michael W. Fincham
The key to good police work is communication — whether on the streets of Baltimore or the rivers of the lower Eastern Shore. Officer Gina Tyler trades local news with Josh Laird, a waterman culling through the catch he's harvested off one of the public oyster bars along the lower Wicomico River. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

What are the policing options for the future? The Maryland General Assembly is considering funding a new helicopter and there are 22 new graduates of the police academy, now in the midst of in-the-the-field training, who will bolster staff levels. Windemuth argues for more old-fashioned policing, more communication with local watermen and farmers, more local tips about suspicious behavior. Tougher judges handing out tougher penalties would help, says Windemuth and new rules now enable DNR to suspend and revoke fishing licenses more easily, especially for repeat offenders.

There would be no penalties levied as a result of Barnette's poaching complaint. The police began an investigation of the alleged poachers, and in rural areas no investigation stays secret for long. The alleged poachers responded by filing their own complaint with the police: Barnette's lease, they said, was not properly marked. All his buoys were in place, but several of the lease numbers had been stripped off his sign during a five-week freeze. Plausible deniability still works. The police filed no charges.

Barnette, for his efforts, got a written warning for incomplete markings.

You can see why Lieutenant Windemuth would have trouble sleeping at night if he ever tried oyster farming in Maryland waters.

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