Use Of Drones In Oyster Areas Helps LDWF Enforcement Stay A Step Ahead Of Potential Violators
story by ADAM EINCK, LDWF Public Information
Criminals and law enforcement personnel are always trying to stay one step in front of each other. Criminals are always looking for an edge that allows them to get away with their illegal behavior; whereas, law enforcement personnel are constantly looking for ways to be more efficient in catching illegal activity.
One of the most common ways of keeping up with rule breakers is adopting technological advances. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) Enforcement Division did just that this past year by acquiring three aerial surveillance drones that were purchased and donated by the oyster industry. The LDWF Enforcement Division also started a new strike force that specializes in enforcing rules and regulations in the commercial oyster industry.
The newly formed Oyster Seafood Strike Force (OSSF) within the LDWF Enforcement Division is assigned to work problem areas on the coast. It is a five-man team that devotes attention to commercial fisheries with a focus mainly on oysters, license fraud and white collar crimes.
Violations include smuggling, interstate commerce violations and false reporting, and under-reporting of commercial fish harvests. Violations pertaining to oysters include harvesting polluted oysters, theft of oysters, illegal tagging, oyster size regulations, and sanitary code violations.
The agents in the OSSF are licensed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) drone pilots. The unit has three drones assigned, which are capable of providing surveillance night or day. OSSF agents also work with regional agents on coastal patrols.
“We felt the formation of the OSSF and getting the drones were critical tools to help enforce commercial fishing regulations in a more efficient manner,” said LDWF Col. Sammy Martin. “Their work and the utilization of the drones have already paid dividends resulting in several cases that help protect the commercial fishing industry and the consumer.”
LDWF agents began utilizing drones for aerial surveillance video on oyster patrols in March of 2018.
Before the LDWF Enforcement Division acquired the aerial surveillance drones, they did all oyster patrols looking for potential violators by boat with some aerial surveillance by seaplane. These patrols took time and it was hard to do surveillance on potential violators without being detected before documenting the crimes.
“The drones offer us a lot of advantages in trying to catch and stop illegal oyster behavior. The drones can cover a lot more area, whereas when you do an oyster patrol by boat it is like a needle in a haystack,” said Lt. Bryan Marie, in charge of the OSSF. “The oyster industry was primarily looking for better ways to stop illegal oyster harvest in polluted and closed areas and oyster theft and the drones are one of the best tools we have.”
The drones are quiet, can document locations accurately with GPS coordinates, can operate at night and can take crystal clear photos and videos of the violations. They are equipped with infra-red night vision and have a zoom with 36 power that can see over a mile into the distance.
OSSF agents are all FAA Part 107 licensed to fly the drones. OSSF agents work with regional agents and Statewide Strikeforce agents in areas of potential oyster violations. The patrols have resulted in catching several oyster violations thus far.
“The first couple of violators that we caught by drone were surprised to say the least,” said Marie. “We showed them the video and how we were able to mark their location inside of a polluted area and they would just say ‘we’re caught.’ They had no idea they were being watched by a drone with an agent operating it from a vessel.”
A couple of cases were recently made involving agents and drones observing oyster violators.
OSSF agents cited Alexander Antonio Amaya-Zelaya, 37, from Terrytown, for taking oysters from a polluted area, violating the sanitary code and failing to display proper numbers on the vessel in Calcasieu Parish on Dec. 20, 2019. Using aerial surveillance from a drone, agents observed and recorded Alexander illegally harvesting oysters in polluted waters. The vessel also did not display the required numbers visible by air and did not have a human waste receptacle. Agents seized 10 sacks of oysters and returned them to the water. The vessel was seized on a department seizure order.
OSSF agents also cited Joby A. Landry, 24, and Brendon K. Duhon, 23, both from Lake Charles, for taking oysters from a polluted area in Cameron Parish on Dec. 31, 2019. Agents were on patrol in the West Cove area and utilized a drone for aerial surveillance when they observed and recorded the two subjects harvesting oysters in a closed area. Agents seized one sack of oysters and returned them to the water. The vessel was seized on a department seizure order.
“So far these drones have worked even better than we could have imagined. The ease of use and evidence they are capable of gathering have been game changers for patrolling the coast.” said Marie. “The ultimate goal is to deter illegal activity to protect the resource and we feel with the word spreading among the oyster community that the drone gives us this ability.”
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