What to Know
Commercial watermen can go to jail for just floating over an oyster sanctuary with their equipment.
Analysis of oyster violations in Virginia found they jumped more than 400 percent in two years.
All of the convicted oyster violators from the past two years were repeat offenders, averaging six previous violations.
On the James River, experienced watermen can identify another boat from far, far away.
“They can see us right now,” said Virginia Marine Police Officer Bryant Stephens said. “We’re a mile away from them. So, even if they were where they’re not supposed to be, they have plenty of time to get back to where they need to be.”
Officer Stephens and the Marine Police took the News4 I-Team onto the James River because, they explained, many of the Virginia oysters you buy in the grocery store come from the rivers surrounding Newport News.
Powering upriver, Stephens' colleague, Officer Bob Griffin, said they’ve become pretty creative when it comes to catching cheaters on the water, using undercover surveillance equipment and staking out potential spots in the middle of the night.
The two officers slowed down to float near a white, diamond-shaped sign that reads, “Oyster. No Harvest. Sanctuary.”
$650 in Five Minutes
"The sanctuary is a no harvest zone," Officer Griffin said. "They're trying to allow the oysters to seed and repopulate the rest of the river downstream so that there will be a continuing resource for everyone to harvest and for the consumers to buy."
Oystermen know the sanctuary sign means everything beyond it is off-limits year-round, but Griffin personally witnessed oystermen illegally harvest $650 worth of oysters in less than five minutes.
He did it by posing as a waterman. Since their police boat is well-known, he explained, he borrowed a skiff used to pull crab pots, which are allowed in the sanctuary.
"We were actually out here working those crab pots pretending like we're waterman," he said. "We had the grundens on, playing the part. Sure enough, a boat came right out here next to the sanctuary, not more than 50 yards from us, started doing circles, harvesting oysters."
Commercial watermen can go to jail for even floating over a sanctuary with their equipment and face grand larceny charges if they're actually caught possessing oysters, Griffin explained.
“We caught four boats in one day," Officer Stephens added. "Three or four people per boat and we had to arrest all of them for Class 6 felonies."
All Violators Are Repeat Violators
The News4 I-Team analyzed oyster violations in Virginia and found they jumped more than 400 percent in two years.
“We had a good harvest during the 2013-2014 season,” Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner John Bull said. “We’ve had great success bringing back the oysters, but more oysters means more oyster poaching.”
The I-Team analysis found all of the convicted oyster violators from the past two years were repeat offenders -- averaging six previous violations -- but those violators account for just 5 percent of all oyster licenses.
One of those watermen lost his license for two years after he admitted to officers he'd been dredging for oysters in the polluted water near a power plant "for nine years." Another told an undercover officer he knew he “would go to jail” if he was “caught selling” his poached oysters.
The Commission just started enforcing new laws put into place this year to fight back against these repeat offenders, levying the largest fine in its history in August, Bull said. A waterman convicted of more than 20 violations for dredging and selling oysters from condemned waters received a $10,000 fine and a five-year license revocation. The Commission said he also received jail time.
The VRMC also just voted to reduce the number of oyster licenses it issues from more than 1,100 each year to an estimated 600 through attrition, prohibiting new entrants and only allowing transfers to direct family members, Bull said.
The rise in violations can also be credited to better, more creative enforcement using high-tech methods to catch offenders, he said.
Using Their Own GPS Units Against Them
At VMRC headquarters, Capt. Jamie Green explained how watermen used to escape punishment by convincing a judge they weren't where the police said they were, something that can be hard to prove on the open, moving water -- until this year. For the first time, police started seizing the GPS units out of oyster skiffs.
Capt. Green pulled out a map the size of a kitchen table showing the Rappahannock River and a blue diamond shape indicating another no-harvest sanctuary zone.
He said they’re now able to overlay the GPS data from oyster skiffs on top of permitting maps, like one showing how oystermen circled within the blue sanctuary border over and over again over the course of two days.
“Location, location, location is your most important thing” when it comes to harvesting oysters, Green explained. A former watermen himself, he said he understands how “it’s very tempting, you know, to ease over here just a short distance to increase your profit margin.”
Which is why many of their best tips come from other oystermen, Officer Stephens said. "Honestly, other watermen tell us who it is because they don't want their resources to be taken, too. It impacts them, and if they're following the rules and all of a sudden they're not following the rules, it's not fair and they're making money illegally."
Crossing the invisible lines may not seem like a big deal until you do the math, Stephens explained.
"Just a hundred feet inside that line could quadruple their catch," he said. "That's how many more oysters there are."
Reported by Tisha Thompson, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.