, 2015

Seafood company owner criticizes Maryland
officials regarding recent ‘small oyster’ incident

by Renss Greene

KILMARNOCK—Lake Cowart Jr., owner of Cowart Seafood Corporation in Lottsburg, this week lambasted the arrest of a driver and the impounding of a Cowart Seafood truck by the Maryland Natural Resources Police on November 13.

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“It was certainly accurate that they found some small oysters on the truck, but as far as responsibility, we’ve been in Maryland since 1949 buying oysters, and the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) has always taken care of the problem with the catcher or with the buyer,” Cowart said.

According to a press release from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Maryland Natural Resources Police seized the truck and arrested the driver, Rhoderick J. “Junior” Newman of Tappahannock, on November 13. Officers found 188 bushels of oysters in the truck, of which 187 contained more than the legal limit of undersized oysters. Newman was charged with one count of attempting to transport undersized oysters out of state and five counts of possession of undersized oysters, all misdemeanors. The maximum fine for the offense is $1,000 per bushel.

Cowart criticized the NRP’s decision to charge the truck driver as well as a press release describing the incident as poaching. Truck drivers are “absolutely not” expected to check the oysters, he said.

“They drive the truck over there, they open the doors up on the truck, the truck is loaded, they close the doors, and then they bring the truck back home,” he said.

“There is no excuse for any amount of oyster poaching, let alone what happened here,” said Maryland DNR Secretary Joseph P. Gill in the press release. “A blatant disregard for our fishery is a slap in the face to responsible watermen, and all Marylanders.”

“The word ‘poaching’ is a totally inaccurate word,” Cowart retorted in an interview. “’Poaching’ indicates an activity in a closed area, in a polluted area for example, maybe on a private bed that someone doesn’t have permission to work on, or oysters that are taken at night are poached. The use of the word ‘poaching’ to describe what took place with these undersized oysters is totally inaccurate.”

Cowart also defended Newman.

“He was an innocent player in this game, and it’s unfortunate because he’s a really good person and a really good driver,” Cowart said. “His job was to leave Lottsburg and go to Maryland, wherever we buy oysters, pick them up, and bring them back. He’s not a DNR officer, he’s not a marine police that’s supposed to grade the oysters at the dock, that’s not his job description. And I think it’s quite unfair to try to turn him into someone who has to inspect the product before it goes on the truck.”

Cowart Seafood will cover any fines which Newman may have to pay, said Cowart.

“I’m not going to let him be liable,” Cowart said. “He’s charged, but you know, he got quite upset about this, and I said, ‘who’s the truck belong to? And who do you work with?’ So he’s not personally liable for this by any means. And it’s absolutely, totally unfair for him to be involved in it at all.”

“If DNR’s trying to make the case that we were over there willfully buying this product, this small product, we weren’t willfully buying a small product,” he added. “The buyer had been told not to buy small oysters, and it should have between DNR, the buyer, and the watermen. We should have never been involved in any of this.”

Cowart suggested the arrest may have been intended to create publicity.

“DNR had evidently stood there all day long undercover and watched the truck load,” he said. “Why they couldn’t walk over to the dock and give a ticket to the waterman, or give a ticket to the buyer, I’m not really sure, other than they just intended to apprehend an out-of-state truck, and I think to create a pretty intensive media event.”

Newman was not detained after being charged. With the truck impounded, Cowart drove to Maryland to pick up Newman.

“We left at 1 a.m. on Thursday the 16th and drove to eastern Maryland, and the DNR officers were very respectful of Junior and he got along well with them, he was very respectful of them, and when they finished placing charges they actually took him up and put him out on Route 50 in a Denny’s, and I was there in about 15 minutes,” Cowart said. “We got there at 4 o’clock in the morning and picked him up and brought him home.”

Cowart Seafood is currently considering its legal options, he said.

“We think we’re guilty of nothing, so at this point we’re obviously consulting with legal counsel in Virginia to determine which way to go,” Cowart said.

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