Tangier Waterman Headed to Jail for Overharvesting Oysters

A Tangier Island waterman will spend a year behind bars for taking too many oysters from the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and taking them to Maryland to sell.

43-year-old Gregory Wheatley Parks, Jr. operated the Melissa Hope out of Tangier, as a commercially-licensed waterman. Despite being aware of Virginia’s strict oyster catch limits, Parks harvested at least 38 bushels above the state limit back in 2015, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia. He reportedly brought those oysters to a fish dealer in Maryland, where he sold them.

Parks was obligated to accurately report his catch quantity to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), but prosecutors say for each of these trips, Parks falsely told VMRC that he had harvested a legal quantity of oysters.

Parks pleaded guilty back in April to violating the Lacey Act, a federal law protecting fish and wildlife from trafficking. It carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, though the U.S. Attorney’s office notes actual sentences in these cases are usually less. A federal district judge sentenced Parks to one year in prison on Thursday.

“In choosing to disregard regulations established with a conscious eye towards preserving a population that has seen significant decline, Parks’ conduct threatened to impact not just the efforts to protect that resource, but also people whose livelihoods are connected to the oyster fishery,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Prosecutors say Parks had a long history of oyster harvesting violations, including harvesting oysters over the legal limit, taking oysters from polluted grounds, taking oysters out of season, and stealing oysters from bedded grounds, all dating back to 2008.

“This investigation focused on the most egregious of commercial harvesters attempting to circumvent the law and should serve as notice that the USFWS will be vigilant in protecting our natural resources,” says Jeff Odom, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

-Meg Walburn Viviano