The following first appeared in the Chestertown Spy.
The fate of Maryland's oyster population is being worked out in a church basement in Annapolis.
That's where the state Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) meets the second Monday of each month. This is the group appointed by Governor Hogan to review the state's oyster management system, and to recommend changes, if necessary.
This past Monday night was perhaps the most important OAC meet so far. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) presented a proposal to open up about 970 acres of 'sanctuary' oyster reefs to harvest.
As I have on several occasions, I sat in on the OAC meeting. But it was difficult to sit still.
The makeup of the OAC is controversial, filled mostly with watermen and those who sympathize with their views. The direction the OAC is taking also is controversial.
The controversy brings out the crowds. The OAC meetings used to take place in a meeting room at the DNR headquarters right next door. So many people began showing up, DNR had to move the meeting to the fellowship hall of the Calvary United Methodist Church on Rowe Blvd. Now even that room is often jammed.
Watermen feel the state has cheated them. Under prior governor Martin O'Malley the state increased the acres of productive oyster reefs set aside as sanctuaries—those areas that can't be harvested. O'Malley himself was guided by scientists' warnings that so few oysters remained in the Chesapeake that the status quo was no longer viable.
With input from everyone involved with oysters, the harvest industry included, O'Malley increased from nine percent to 24 percent the portion of oyster bars protected as sanctuaries. Three-quarters of reefs were to remain open to harvest. He also relaxed decades-old regulations to give watermen more opportunities to farm oysters rather than harvest them in the wild. In Virginia, oyster aquaculture is a booming business, but at the time of O'Malley's new plan it was negligible in Maryland. The idea was to boost watermen's earnings, and simultaneously to take out an insurance plan for the future of oysters in the Bay.
There's no doubt short term watermen took a hit. They had fewer places to harvest, although fortunately for them Mother Nature provided strong oyster reproduction for several years, resulting in strong harvests.
Scientists and groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) where I work sympathized with the watermen. But we believed someone had to take the long view before oysters were wiped out completely.
CBF, along with a host of western and Eastern Shore groups such as the Midshore River Conservancy, St. Mary's River Watershed Association, and others, believe the OAC proposal to shrink the sanctuaries is ill-advised. At a minimum, the state must wait till DNR finishes a stock assessment of the oyster population. You wouldn't start spending more money without knowing what's in your bank account. That's exactly what the proposal would do.
It would open up 1,277 acres of sanctuaries for harvest in the following rivers and Bay segments: Upper Chester, Miles, Wye, Upper Choptank, Hooper Strait, Upper Patuxent, and Tangier Sound. It would expand sanctuaries by 300 acres in: Mill Hill/Prospect Bay, Eastern Bay, Lower Choptank, and Nanticoke River. The net result would be 977 fewer acres in sanctuaries, an 11 percent reduction in those sanctuary acres.
It's only 11 percent, you might say. But it's 11 percent of the most productive, healthy sanctuary bars in the Bay. And it is giving away these protected areas before we have any idea the true size of the oyster population. That's not scientific. That's not sound judgment. Harvesting oysters on those 977 previously protected acres could do irreversible damage to the fragile population.
A bill in the Maryland General Assembly, HB 924, would freeze any alterations in the sanctuaries till after the stock assessment. Oyster harvesting is the only major fishery in Maryland that isn't managed with a science-based plan. It pays us to wait till we have the science before we implement a major change such as OAC is considering.
The bill will be heard this Friday, Feb. 24, at 1 p.m. in the House Environment and Transportation Committee. We urge people concerned about the proposal to shrink sanctuaries to make their voice heard.