The shellfish thieves were illegally pilfering a valuable natural resource.
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The equipment, which had led to the massive decline of oysters along the country’s northern shores, was far more effective than the rake-like hand tongs traditionally used in the Chesapeake. The Chesapeake Bay falls within the territory of Maryland and Virginia, and while both state governments were aware of the value of the sought-after sea creatures, the odd geopolitical nature of the shared waters made the oyster industry difficult to control.
In an effort to preserve its precious resource, Maryland enacted laws that limited oyster harvesting to state residents, then in 1865, further required that its local oyster harvesters purchase a yearly license. As the has noted, per a 1785 agreement, both states had to pass the same legislation in order to enact any laws regarding the shared waters of the Potomac River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.Locals, who originally relied on tongs, resented the Northern newcomers because their dredges allowed them to collect a heftier bounty.After Chesapeake Bay residents acquired dredgers of their own, they also found themselves fighting against gun-happy local authorities, from both Maryland and Virginia, who were desperately trying to maintain order on the chaotic waters.The poorer waterfront communities relied on the oysters to make the money they needed to feed their families.They’d already spent the years prior to the Civil War watching northern fishermen trickle into their waters with advanced equipment used to reap bountiful harvests.Beneath the dark cloak of the night sky, hidden behind veils of mist and clouds, the pirates plundered the bay as part of a loosely united ramshackle crew, known as the Mosquito Fleet for their small, swift boats.