Government agencies and nonprofit groups have produced and planted a record 1.25 billion baby native oysters in Maryland waters this year, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Friday, declaring it a milestone in the long-running effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay's depleted bivalve population.
O'Malley said the expanded production of baby oysters, or "spat," by the University of Maryland's hatchery at Horn Point near Cambridge was a key piece of the plan he unveiled four years ago to rebuild the bay's once-abundant oyster reefs while also boosting private "farming" of oysters for sale to restaurants and markets.
"Although our fight to restore a thriving oyster population in the bay is far from over, we are ... finally headed in the right direction," he said in Annapolis before an invited crowd of scientists, state and federal officials and members of nonprofit groups working on the issue.
Of the baby oysters produced this year by the university hatchery, 750 million were planted in Harris Creek, a tidal tributary of the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore that has been targeted for an intensive $29 million reef restoration effort. Those and other bivalves were put overboard by the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a major nonprofit partner in the effort.
The creek is the first of 10 Maryland waterways where the state has pledged to revive oyster populations lost to decades of overfishing, pollution and disease. O'Malley aides said funds are available to finish that project and move on to the next waterway, but they continue to search for enough old oyster shells or other hard material for use in rebuilding the reefs on which baby oysters would settle. Legislators this year approved a tax credit for recycling oyster shells, and 280 restaurants, caterers, seafood dealers and other businesses participate.
The ambitious restoration effort has been praised by scientists and environmentalists. But many watermen have complained about being squeezed out of areas where they once harvested oysters by the state's expansion of sanctuaries.
The state has attempted to persuade watermen to move into oyster farming, and O'Malley touted progress there as well. Eighty-five new leases have been approved in the past couple of years to raise oysters across 1,567 acres of the bay, he said. The state also has provided $2.7 million in loans to 49 aquaculture ventures. The governor said the leasing process, which some applicants complained was balky at the beginning, has been streamlined.
Johnny Shockley, a third-generation waterman from Hooper's Island who jumped into oyster farming, thanked O'Malley for pushing through his restoration plan, saying it had been a "political challenge" that required the governor to "put yourself on a limb."
The number of watermen harvesting wild oysters has declined by 75 percent since the 1980s, when diseases decimated the oyster population. But the diseases have receded in recent years with favorable weather conditions, and Jim Mullin, executive director of the Maryland Oystermen Association, said members' harvests have been abundant lately.
"It's across the board," he said. "So far so good."