Maryland Oysters Are Threatened Again

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is calling for the Hogan Administration to follow good science, and to allow oyster restoration to continue as planned in the state. CBF is prepared to analyze the Administration's long-awaited review of the state's oyster management plan which is expected to be released tomorrow, Friday, July 29.

"Oysters have been one of the real positive news stories in recent years. Governor Hogan has an opportunity to continue this progress by re-affirming the management of oysters through science," said Alison Prost, Maryland Executive Director of CBF. "We've invested in a sound oyster program. We must let it continue to work. Disregarding the encouraging results of our restoration work to date would not be in the best interest of the health of the Bay or the sustainability of the fishery."

Mark Belton, Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), has said he will release the review of the state's oyster management program sometime tomorrow. The review will evaluate the first five years of the state's progressive program, which has three parts. First approved in 2009, the program: 1) added some sanctuary reefs where oysters can't be harvested 2) increased potential income for watermen and others who want to farm oysters and 3) committed to find a path to sustainable oyster harvesting.

Belton has suggested publicly that changes in the plan could be worth considering, such as opening some sanctuary oyster reefs to harvesting.

CBF believes science must dictate any changes to the program. As it reviews the 900-page review document and data, CBF will look for scientific evidence to justify any changes. CBF insists that several important facts be considered before any decisions are made to change oyster management. These facts include:

  • The program is in its infancy—only five years old—barely enough time to get started. Long-term, the best way to grow the oyster population is to help oysters reproduce naturally. The science is clear: the best way to do that is build large reef systems off- limits to harvest. And then give nature time to work.
  • Maryland and its federal and non-profit partners have completed the largest man-made oyster reef in the Bay, and two other similarly large reefs are under construction. These large reefs are expected to become dynamos for growing the area's oyster population. They will spread larvae for miles which will populate far-flung reefs. This will benefit the harvest, and the ecosystem.
  • Small sanctuary reefs have not had time enough (or help from the state) to recovery after decades of harvesting, disease and poor water quality. It makes no sense to open them to harvest, especially since the harvest would be meager, and the structure of the reefs would be further damaged, setting their recovery yet further back.
  • Harvesting every few years on a sanctuary reef is not an acceptable compromise, since the harvesting technology still destroys the reef structure. Rotational harvesting could be considered for oyster bars where harvesting already is permitted, and that have been depleted of oysters. This approach would give those public reefs some time to recover between harvests.

Maryland has 51 sanctuary reefs representing about 24 percent of its existing oyster reefs. The remaining three-quarters of all reefs already are open to harvest.

As part of the recent Chesapeake Bay Agreement, Maryland committed to significantly expand five sanctuary reefs by 2025. Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River, was the first mega-reef completed. Other large reefs are under construction in the Little Choptank River and the Tred Avon River. Scientists say when the reefs are fully functioning years from now they will spur oyster growth far beyond their boundaries.

Yet here, too, CBF sees worrying signs that the Hogan Administration might change course. The Administration suddenly stopped the Tred Avon River oyster restoration project last winter, after a private meeting with three watermen representatives. The Administration said the project would be delayed until the best science was available to judge its progress. The best available evidence subsequently was made public, and all indications are the large reef projects, including the Tred Avon, are working.

The Commission could make a recommendation on the future of the Tred Avon project as early as next Monday, Aug. 1.

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