There are some strange laws on the books in the United States, but a lot of them have very good reasons for being there. Laws that specifically prohibit oyster stealing might seem silly, but, as reporter Patrick Skahill found out, in Connecticut, oyster theft has been a problem since before the United States existed. And anti–oyster theft laws are alive and well, as is the problem they’re trying to prevent.
Connecticut recently updated its laws concerning the stealing of shellfish to focus on all shellfish, not just oysters. The current text of one bill before the State of Connecticut’s General Assembly, AN ACT CONCERNING THE STEALING OF SHELLFISH, reads as follows:
Any person who, in the daytime, unlawfully takes and carries away any shellfish lawfully planted or cultivated in any waters, or any shellfish being on any place designated for the planting or cultivation of shellfish, shall be fined not more than three hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than one year; and, if such offense is committed in the night season, such person shall be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than one year.
Oyster thefts have been a real problem for centuries. In an 1881 report for the Department of the Interior, Ernest Ingersoll wrote that in some places, "night-thieves and foggy-day oysterman...control and ruin the oyster inerests, making it so risky to plant that men of means will not put their money into it." A 1912 report from Connecticut's Shell-fish Commissioners discussed whether it was worth it for the state to fund "the oyster police," and concluded that "to those who are disposed to steal oysters...the police amount to but little as a preventative."
And thefts of this sort are still going on. From the Hartford Courant Blog:
“The stealing of shellfish should not be taken lightly,” insisted [Connecticut State Sen. Edward] Meyer.
[Agriculture Commissioner Steven] Reviczky was testifying in support of new legislation to make it easier to go after people who steal oysters and clams. He said shellfishermen who pay for state leases on offshore beds and spend long hours seeding and cultivating oysters and clams can suffer “quite devastating ” financial losses if someone steals the shellfish just as they’re ready to be harvested.
The commissioner says there are currently three cases of oyster theft now being prosecuted by the state.
Connecticut's not the only place to deal with this problem, either. In 2010 as many at 16 tons of oysters were stolen from a single bay in France. The next year, a French man was caught with a stolen haul of 240,000 oysters, some of which were returned to their rightful owners. In Cape Cod last summer $40,000 worth of oysters were stolen. The thieves in that case were caught, but not before hitting a few oyster farms, according to Boston.com.