CBF Statement on Maryland’s Changes to Oyster Fishery Regulations

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on Monday published regulations governing the 2019-2020 oyster fishing season.

The regulations call for removing one harvest day per week for commercial watermen—Wednesday—as well as reducing bushel limits. DNR claims these and other changes would reduce Maryland’s overall oyster harvest by 26 percent. The regulations announced today were different from DNR’s plan to shorten the season, which they publicly proposed last week at a meeting of the Oyster Advisory Commission.

CBF does not believe the changes will significantly reduce the harvest or protect existing oyster populations. The department’s own analysis, presented to the Oyster Advisory Commission in April, notes, “If implemented alone, given current behavior, 1 day reduction would have little conservation impact.”

Other data presented by DNR found that just 25 percent of watermen harvest five days a week at the beginning of the season, and that rate falls to 5 to 10 percent by the end of the season.

The other regulations—slightly reducing bushel limits and banning harvest above the Bay Bridge—are expected to reduce the overall harvest by 4 percent and 1 percent, respectively, according to DNR. These reductions offer little benefits for oyster conservation, especially considering market sized oysters above the Bay Bridge planted previously will remain available to harvest under the new regulations.

Last year, the state’s oyster stock assessment determined that more than half of the oyster harvest areas in Maryland’s portion of the Bay were experiencing overfishing. The new regulations fail to address these overfishing hotspots.

The assessment also found the adult oyster population had dropped from about 600 million oysters in 1999 to about 300 million in 2018. There’s an urgent need to stem this decline to benefit from the ecological value of oysters.

An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day and the bivalves naturally sequester nitrogen and phosphorus in their tissue. Oysters reefs also provide habitat to crabs, fish, and other marine life.Maryland’s oyster population remains critically low—it’s estimated to be at less than 2 percent of historic levels.

CBF has asked DNR to install total allowable catch limits in the fishery to prevent areas from being overfished. This would use population estimates from the stock assessment to set the number of oysters that can be harvested from a specific area. Once that number is harvested, based on harvest reports, the area would be closed to fishing for the season.

The department should also develop an abundance target that accounts for the ecological value of oysters. So far, DNR has only said it aims to create a “sustainable oyster fishery” in 8 to 10 years, rather than set a goal for a restored oyster population and healthy Chesapeake Bay.

Allison Colden, CBF’s Maryland Fisheries Scientist issued the following statement:

“DNR has an obligation to use the best available science to protect and conserve the state’s resources for all Marylanders. Their own analysis shows this proposal will have little, if any, impact to conserve oysters. These are halfhearted attempts that fail to address overfishing or the systemic and chronic decline of Maryland’s oyster population. We can’t keep putting off this problem.”

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