The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is opposing proposed changes to Maryland’s public shellfish fishery areas that would limit the ability to expand oyster farming and restoration activities in the future.
Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) presented the proposed policy Oct. 12 at the Oyster Advisory Commission meeting. The proposal, if approved in regulation, would establish criteria to develop new public shellfish fishery areas—Bay bottom reserved exclusively for oyster harvesting —if the area has five or more oysters per square meter of bottom.
Once a public shellfish fishery area has been established, the bottom can no longer be used for activities such as oyster restoration or oyster farming, also known as aquaculture. However, Bay bottom with strong oyster populations are among the best areas to restore oyster reefs or raise oysters as part of an aquaculture operation. This proposal could prevent reef restoration and aquaculture in large portions of Maryland's Bay by reserving them for commercial harvest. More than 179,000 acres of Bay bottom are already designated as public shellfish fishery areas. An additional 100,000 acres or more that fall outside of these areas are also open to oyster harvest. About 6,500 acres of Bay bottom are currently being leased for oyster farming.
Environmental advocates, scientists, watermen, and seafood sellers are working together to develop recommendations for a new fishery management plan for oysters as part of a consensus process established in Maryland law in January. DNR’s proposed regulations represent a major change in oyster management that undermine the spirit of that law and the process that’s already underway. This end-around the consensus-based process ties the hands of stakeholders working to develop a shared vision for oyster management.
The proposal must still go through a public comment period and legislative review before it can be established in regulation by DNR. CBF is urging DNR to consider tabling this proposal so that it may be properly considered by the Oyster Advisory Commission members whose legislative mandate is to cooperatively develop recommendations for oyster management that increase oyster abundance and ends overfishing.
The reality is Maryland needs more oysters. Oysters filter and clarify water. Their reefs provide habitat to blue crabs, fish, and other marine life. Despite these benefits, oyster populations in the state remain at historic lows. Expanding areas for the exclusive use of harvesters that require no replanting of oysters and excluding aquaculture operators, who are required to replant areas at sustainable levels, seems highly unlikely to achieve this outcome.
CBF Maryland Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden issued the following statement about the proposal:
“This proposal undermines the process put in place by the legislature to implement actions to increase the oyster population and end overfishing. It appears to be a one-sided proposal to increase the oyster harvest at the expense of restoration and aquaculture efforts that are helping to bring Maryland’s oysters back. Making more of Maryland’s Bay bottom off-limits to restoration and aquaculture makes no sense as oyster populations are wallowing at historic lows. The state must balance the interests of the fishery with the environmental and social benefits more oysters could provide, instead of reserving the remaining oysters in Maryland waters for harvest.”