“Stand your ground, surround him and don’t let him take you,” said Capt. Whitehurst to his crew and the other oyster dredgers. And when Whitehurst refused to heave-to upon the command of Capt. Clarke of the Maryland Oyster Navy sloop Folly, the state’s sailors fired their Winchesters, shredding the sails of Whitehurst’s Nickel.
A gun battle ensued between Folly and the three oyster dredgers in the dark waters off Sandy Point. When it was over, Whitehurst lay dead, and his captured crew and schooner, along with another dredge boat, were taken to Annapolis harbor to face justice.
This was the violent world of the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Wars in 1888, when Maryland fielded 14 vessels — three of them steamers — to enforce laws against illegal oyster harvesting. The Maryland Oyster Navy was formed in 1868 to stop the depletion of the Bay’s oyster beds, which by the late 19th century were the source of half the world’s oysters. In addition to enforcing the laws for tonging, scraping and dredging the plentiful beds, Maryland’s Oyster Navy also broke up battles between rival oystermen and rescued crewmembers who had been shanghaied off Baltimore’s Pratt Street.
The watermen on the Chesapeake numbered about 20,000 at their peak, gathering the rich harvest of oysters that would be taken to the wharves of Baltimore, Annapolis and beyond to be sold and processed. This hardy and competitive breed defended their harvesting from rivals not only with small arms but also with “punt guns” — extremely large shotguns used mostly by market hunters to kill large numbers of waterfowl with a single shot. The Oyster Navy’s vessels were armed with Gatling guns, 1-pound cannons and even a 12-pound Howitzer.
Today, Maryland’s Natural Resources Police have expanded the mission of the Oyster Navy — carried out in a much less violent way, of course. Its mission includes conservation and boating law enforcement, homeland security, search and rescue, emergency medical services, education, information and communications services around the clock.
On any given day, the officers in the field might interdict fish and oyster poachers, enforce navigation laws, remove impaired skippers from the water, rescue injured boaters and patrol secured waters around bridges, power plants, LNG platforms and the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.
A Tyaskin, Maryland, man whose license had been revoked for numerous violations was recently sentenced to six months in jail for poaching oysters. “This guy is the reason the Department of Natural Resources developed their point/revocation system,” says Cpl. Tim Kraemer, a 17-year veteran of the NRP. “And he still didn’t learn.”
Although jail sentences are somewhat rare, the NRP strictly enforces the fishing, crabbing and oystering laws, and the officers’ knowledge of the regulations is thorough.
On a cloudy May morning, Kraemer and Officer First Class Ron Collier described their beat. “We can pursue violations anywhere,” says Kraemer, “but generally we cover the Patuxent River to just north of Wayson’s Corner, the Bayfront from North Beach all the way south, and halfway across the Bay.”
After checking their 21-foot Boston Whaler and its equipment, Kraemer and Collier depart from the pier at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomons Island in southern Maryland and head toward Cove Point, where they see several commercial fishing boats gathering crabs. Approaching Sandy Bottom, a 40-foot Kinnamon, Collier hails her captain, Allen Scott, and Kraemer puts out fenders between the two boats.
Once aboard the crabber, Kraemer greets the three-man crew, composed of Scott and his son Eric, and fellow waterman Christopher Cole. “It’s a clean boat,” Kraemer says, checking its documentation.
With the paperwork in order, he measures a few of the crabs and asks about the day’s catch, which includes white perch and razor clams that will be used for bait. “This is the best season we’ve had in 15 years,” says Allen Scott. After inspecting Sandy Bottom’s safety equipment, Kraemer returns to the patrol boat, and the watermen return to work.
“464 DNR,” Kraemer reports over the radio. “Copy commercial inspection off Cove Point, no violations … 3 bushels catch.”
“Copy 464 DNR,” is the reply, and with that the NRP boat heads to another commercial crabber for inspection. “In July and August you can almost walk boat to boat in the north end of the Patuxent River,” says Collier. “If they’re running, they’re on ’em,” says Kraemer.
After several commercial inspections, checking a few recreational fishing boats and patrolling secured areas around the nuclear plant and the Cove Point LNG platform, the officers prepare to head back to the dock to take care of their paperwork.
“The things you remember,” says Kraemer, pointing to a 100-foot cliff near Calvert Cliffs State Park. “A few years ago, a Boy Scout and his friends were hiking by the cliff when one of them on a dare started working his way down. We found him hanging by a vine about 40 feet from the top. Fire rescue and state police responded. The kid hung on and eventually got hauled back up, alive, to the top.”
The NRP carries out its varied mission to help make the Chesapeake a safe place for commerce and recreation.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.