The following first appeared in the Daily Times.
In the current hostile political climate, we can't seem to agree on any government policy.
But that's exactly what happened in Maryland this past month. A poll found about 90 percent of Maryland voters, across party lines, want the state to protect oyster sanctuaries.
The bipartisan poll was conducted by two polling companies, one Republican, one Democratic.
"This is about as overwhelming as you can get on any public policy issue," said Lori Weigel, a pollster with the Republican firm, Public Opinion Strategies.
There's just one problem. The future of Maryland oyster sanctuaries is at risk. A proposal presented by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) would open up a net of nearly 1,000 acres of oyster sanctuaries to be harvested.
Maryland established the sanctuaries years ago as an insurance policy for the future of the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay.
Fifty-one of these areas are scattered throughout the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay. They represent a quarter of all oyster reefs.
In these underwater nurseries oysters can grow large, and reproduce. At least until now.
Opening the sanctuaries for harvest would be a major policy change for Maryland. DNR Secretary Mark Belton emphasized to a legislative committee recently that the proposal is preliminary.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation adamantly opposes any reduction in the oyster sanctuaries. So do 29 other conservation groups that signed a letter in opposition, which was submitted to DNR and the OAC, whose members are appointed by DNR.
The oyster harvest industry favors harvesting in sanctuaries. The number of licensed harvesters has doubled in recent years, and the industry wants more places to work. About three-quarters of the oyster reefs in Maryland already are open to harvest.
Nevertheless, the industry has proposed harvesting once every four years in some nurseries, the idea being that oysters would be allowed to grow in the years in between.
The current oyster population in the Chesapeake is estimated to be less than 1 percent of its historic size. The population has been devastated by overharvesting, water pollution, and disease.
Scientists say the sanctuaries are critical to safeguard against the unthinkable—losing the last remaining oysters in the Chesapeake—and to reverse the fate of the iconic bivalve.
Following those warnings, the state increased the area of sanctuary reefs in 2010 from 9 percent to 24 percent. At the same time, the state loosened regulations on oyster farming to help watermen increase their livelihoods.
The current policy is working.
A DNR report this past July concluded oysters are thriving in many of the sanctuary reefs. And oyster farming has surged, bringing added income to many watermen.
We must leave well enough alone.
The oysters on sanctuaries develop resistance to the periodic bouts of disease that flare up when water salinity increases, and spread that resistance to other reefs.
Given time, these reefs will grow vertically by many feet. Oyster reefs around the bay used to be so tall, colonial ships would go aground.
But centuries of harvesting and other assaults have collapsed the reefs into oyster "beds"—structures easily covered up by silt. Leaving sanctuary reefs alone will allow them to rise above this perpetual problem.
Permitting even occasional harvesting in these protected areas destroys the vertical growth, removes the large disease resistant oysters, and kills the nursery function.
Oysters can play a vital role in restoring the bay to health. Undisturbed oyster reefs are habitat for fish and other sea life. They also can filter millions of gallons of water—for no charge.
These structures literally can provide the building blocks of a restored Chesapeake Bay.
Marylanders are saying in no uncertain terms: Protect oyster sanctuaries.