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Chesapeake marine police turn camera's eye on Bay

Maryland's Department of Natural Resources Police is using new technology to keep a closer eye on Chesapeake Bay. A system of radar and cameras was recently installed in areas around the Bay that is designed to give authorities a stronger presence on the water and provide a deterrent to oyster poachers.

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The sensors are monitored by the department's communications center, which alerts the nearest law enforcement capability. According to the police, this can either be a local boat or a vehicle that can wait at the marina to inspect the suspected vessel upon its return. Illegal possession of harvested shellfish is enough to present to a court. With this new system, a poacher does not have to necessarily be caught in the act.

"The system is a great force multiplier and will have a significant impact on the way we do our jobs," says Lt. Dave Gough, communications and records section commander. "I believe it will take a few cases being made to break the hard-core violators, but the word will spread that the system is there and working."

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, says he has received some complaints about the amount of money spent on the new system. But most watermen have a positive outlook. "Most of them want the laws enforced," says Simns. "They're in competition with one another and it is not fair when someone cheats."

There are four radars costing $600,000 and two cameras that cost $206,000. The benefits are multifaceted, according to Gough, providing homeland security and search-and-rescue functions, as well as a solution to poaching. He says he believes the cost-to-benefit ratio is worth it.

"The cost of one camera is close to the price of placing one new officer in service," he says. "However, the camera only needs initial cost setup and yearly maintenance and then provides 365-24-7 coverage."

The time to act came with recognition that there was a significant increase in oyster poaching, according to the natural resources department. The agency's records reveal a steady increase with each year. There were 130 oyster violation penalties issued in 2007, 165 in 2008 and 187 in 2009.

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In addition to the radar and camera system installation, stricter legislation was passed in 2010 to protect Chesapeake Bay's natural resources. The penalty for the offense in oyster sanctuaries is now a maximum fine of $3,000. There is also the potential to revoke a violator's fishing license.

For honest watermen and law enforcement, this is an exciting new system to level the playing field, according to Gough.

"This is a system designed to monitor activities of non-law-abiding individuals and sends the message that we care about our bay and its natural resources," he says. "This is as close as we can get to giving fish a means to call in complaints."

This article originally appeared in Home Waters Sections of the March 2011 issue.