(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—An overwhelming majority of Maryland voters across party lines support maintaining existing Chesapeake Bay oyster sanctuaries, according to a poll by a bipartisan research team commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF).
"The state is considering a proposal to open up a net of nearly 1,000 acres of oyster sanctuaries to harvest. 'Don't you dare!' Marylanders are saying loud and clear," said Alison Prost, Maryland Executive Director of CBF. "Voters understand the value of leaving a quarter of the state's reefs closed to harvest, so oysters can recover from decades of overharvest and disease."
The results found 88 percent of Marylanders support existing sanctuaries, two-thirds of those voters "strongly." The findings suggest strong support across party lines, with 91 percent of registered Democrats, 89 percent of Independents, and 82 percent of Republicans in support.
Public support for the sanctuaries actually increased after the survey summarized the oyster industry's reasons for wanting the expanded harvesting. Industry representatives have argued at Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) meetings that the state unfairly increased the sanctuaries in 2010. They say too much public money has been spent on restoring the oyster population of the Bay.
Understanding the industry's position, voters were even more in favor of keeping sanctuaries intact, with support rising from 88 percent to 91 percent.
The poll found voters understand the value of undisturbed oyster beds. Fully 92 percent said that the ability of those sanctuary reefs to filter pollutants from the water, and to improve water quality was "extremely" or "very important" to them. And 88 percent of voters said they value the protection and habitat for fish, crabs, and other plants and wildlife that protected reefs provide.
The poll results come a little over a week after the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) compiled proposals submitted to date and presented a "strawman" proposal to the OAC to let the oyster industry harvest on 977 acres net of oyster reefs which currently are off-limits to harvesting. That proposal will be discussed by OAC members, and possibly adopted, changed or rejected in coming weeks.
A bill (HB 924) being considered in the Maryland General Assembly would require the state to hold off on any alterations of the oyster sanctuaries until a scientific assessment of the oyster stock is completed in 2018. That legislation will be heard today, Feb. 24, at 1 p.m. in the House Environment and Transportation Committee.
Sanctuaries are Maryland's insurance policy for the future oyster population. By protecting a small portion of the state's oyster bottom from harvesting, oysters on the sanctuaries can grow and reproduce. A DNR study published in July 2016 found oysters thriving in much of the sanctuary system, but found scarce numbers of oysters elsewhere.
Three-quarters of Maryland's oyster reefs are open to harvesting, under current regulations. The proposal before the OAC would shrink the sanctuary areas by 11 percent, and enlarge the harvest areas.
The poll was conducted by a bipartisan collaboration between Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, a Democratic polling firm, and Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm.
"Marylanders understand we must take the long view managing our oysters. That's why it's vitally important we wait for scientists to finish their stock assessment. We wouldn't spend money without knowing what's in our bank account. We need science-based management for Maryland oysters just like we have for every other fishery. We must wait to see how many oysters are at the bottom of the Bay before we randomly increase the harvest," Prost said.