In comments filed with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Friday, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is asking the state to take stronger action to end oyster overfishing and develop a rebuilding plan for areas of the Bay where the oyster population has declined to the lowest levels on record.
In response to DNR’s specific proposed changes to the state’s oyster fishery, CBF is urging DNR to maintain four oyster harvest days per week and to implement electronic harvest reporting in the fishery. Virginia has switched to mandatory electronic reporting for the 2021-2022 oyster season.
CBF is also opposed to opening harvest areas north of the Bay Bridge where oyster populations have consistently struggled due to increasing rain causing lower salinity conditions.
CBF is continuing to urge DNR to re-think how it manages the state’s oyster fishery by implementing a total allowable catch system. Oyster fishery managers could use the population estimates from the state’s oyster stock assessment for specific areas of the Bay to determine how many oysters could be harvested sustainably from each location. Once the total allowable catch number for an area is reached, oyster harvesting would no longer be allowed until the next season begins. This system gives fishery managers more tools to prevent overharvesting and ideally end the boom-and-bust cycles that have been repeated throughout history in the state’s oyster fishery. Total allowable catch systems are used widely throughout the world as well as in many of Maryland’s commercial fisheries.
Currently, DNR’s oyster management tools primarily include altering bushel limits, workdays, or season length. Earlier this month, DNR proposed increasing oyster harvesting to five days a week, after the department eliminated harvest on Wednesdays in 2019 in response to declines in the oyster population. At that time, DNR also closed oyster harvesting in areas north of the Bay Bridge.
DNR made the changes to reduce harvesting effort by watermen. However, Maryland’s oyster harvest doubled—from approximately 145,000 bushels landed in the 2018-2019 season to 333,000 bushels in 2020-2021. Oyster harvesting licenses also increased from 822 in 2018 to more than 1,200 in 2020—meaning more watermen are harvesting or plan to harvest oysters.
Even though the 2021 stock assessment indicated an increase this year, today’s Maryland oyster population remains historically low. It’s just a small fraction of what it was in the early 1900s, and harvest figures fall far short of those in the 1980s when a million to a million and a half bushels of oysters were harvested each year.
DNR has not proposed any new ways to deal with consistent overfishing of oysters from areas including the Choptank River and Tangier Sound or proactive plans to rebuild oysters from record low levels in the Chester River.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden issued the following statement:
“This year’s stock assessment results are encouraging but by no means a justification to throw caution to the wind. The oyster population is still experiencing chronic overfishing in some of the Bay’s last remaining productive oyster harvesting areas.
“CBF is urging DNR to implement actions to reduce fishing to sustainable levels in areas that are overfished, maintain the four-day harvest week, and protect this year’s record spatset. In areas of the Bay with low abundance, no fishing should be allowed unless such efforts can be directly controlled through the use of management tools like area quotas and daily harvest reporting.
“We continue to ask DNR to implement a total allowable catch system in Maryland’s public oyster fishery to address issues identified by the stock assessment.”