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Police Turn To Tech In Pursuit Of Oyster Thieves

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oysters

LIZ HOLLAND
The Daily Times

DEAL ISLAND, Md. (AP) — A sophisticated radar and camera system installed along the Chesapeake Bay is acting as another set of eyes for Maryland Natural Resources Police who have successfully tracked watermen poaching oysters from state sanctuaries — and already won their first court case against two of them — since the system went online Oct. 1.

“It allows us to see things we’re not normally privy to,” said Lt. Scott Richardson, the agency’s regional commander. “It’s been a very useful tool for us.”

But the new Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network also has “caused quite a stir” among watermen and the public as the number of oyster violations mounted during the season, Richardson said.

“I’m sure respect for MLEIN is growing almost daily,” he said.

In Deal Island, waterman Danny Webster said the radar and cameras mounted on a tower on state property at the harbor have been the talk of the community since they were installed last summer.

At first, many thought the equipment was just a deterrent to keep watermen in line, but they have since found out it’s a working system.

“A lot of them are saying it’s like Big Brother,” he said. “They want to know why (the state) can’t use it for drug dealers instead of spying on watermen.”

State officials said the equipment, which is able to cover up to 20 miles, in a network which reaches from the mouth of the Susquehanna River to the Virginia state line, is used for a lot more than just keeping watch over oyster sanctuaries.

The system was used by first responders in Anne Arundel County who asked to have cameras on the bay bridge turned to see a sailboat in distress, said Candy Thomson, a Natural Resources Police spokeswoman.

“They were able to zero in and sent out the equipment and people,” she said.

Police in Anne Arundel County also turned some of the waterfront cameras toward a house where they believed a suspect was hiding, she said.

Natural Resources Police — the lead agency for Homeland Security on the bay — watch a lot of activity on the water, but the understaffed department has found the MLEIN system to be particularly useful in enforcing fisheries laws.

Officers log in to the radar on their laptop computers to track activity in sanctuaries and other areas where oyster harvesting is prohibited, then head out to the spot by boat to investigate, Richardson said.

Although oyster season ended March 31, officers will continue to use the tracking system year round. Among other uses, it will allow the officers to track anyone setting or retrieving crab pots in rivers and other locations that are off limits, he said.

Thomson said eight cases against poachers were made this season using the MLEIN system. One of them has already gone to court, resulting in guilty verdicts against William Cloyde Catlin and Irving Lee Catlin of Fairmount.

But catching oyster poachers is only one of many uses for the system, said Tim Bowman, the MLEIN program manager.

Currently, there are about 14 state and federal agencies monitoring the network, including the Coast Guard which has no radar of its own and the Maryland Transportation Authority which monitors vessels in zones around bridges, he said. Others include the Baltimore Police Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In 2006, the state received a grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security to install cameras on the water. However, the vastness of the Chesapeake Bay dictated the use of radar as the primary technology to detect movement, Bowman said.

Numerous potential targets for terrorists lie up and down the bay, including a nuclear power plant at Calvert Cliffs, the bay bridge, the Port of Baltimore and Washington, and the radar system is now used to monitor everything from large ships in the main channels to small vessels used by watermen and recreational boaters. In particular, the various agencies monitor exclusion zones in certain parts of the bay.

And while the network was built primarily for homeland security purposes, the state has found many other uses for it, Thomson said

“I call it the Swiss Army knife of maritime law enforcement,” she said.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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