Chesapeake Bay advocates alarmed by plan that could open oyster sanctuaries to watermen

Some thriving oyster sanctuaries could be periodically harvested under a plan Maryland officials are weighing.

Some of the Chesapeake Bay's most densely populated oyster sanctuaries could be opened to periodic harvesting under a plan being floated by state officials, setting up more conflict between alarmed environmentalists and watermen seeking to make a living.

Neither side is pleased with the first draft of a new map of sanctuary boundaries in Maryland's share of the bay. While watermen would gain some territory they ceded when a state oyster restoration strategy launched in 2010, dredging would be banned in other areas that are now open to harvesting.

The net effect would be a loss of 11 percent of oyster sanctuary, instead opening up that acreage to watermen for undetermined stretches of time once every few years. Gov. Larry Hogan's administration has supported what it calls "rotational harvesting" as a way to balance oyster recovery and bay restoration with the demands of the seafood industry.

Conservationists and scientists are concerned that the plan — which is sure to be revised — could set back progress to rebuild the Chesapeake's oyster population from historic lows.

"There is no scientific justification for opening these 1,000 acres of sanctuaries for harvest," said Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She said the plan "heavily weighs the desires of the commercial seafood industry."

But watermen say they, too, want to see changes to the maps. They say the proposal doesn't change their concerns that too much of the bay's oyster reefs are held in sanctuaries. And they worry the redrawn boundaries could actually hurt their harvest.

"We're so backed into a corner, we can't afford to do that," said Bunky Chance, who recently stepped down as president of the Talbot County Watermen's Association.

Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton told members of a state oyster commission on Monday that the draft is just a starting point for discussions about oyster restoration strategy. The state is not endorsing the map it put forth, he said. Officials intended it as a synthesis of proposals put forth by watermen, environmentalists and scientists.

"This is a draft. This is not an end-all, be-all," said Stephen Schatz, a spokesman for the department. "And it's version 1, meaning there could be a version 365."

Oysters once filled the Chesapeake, filtering all of the bay's water in a matter of days. But disease and overfishing have diminished the population to less than 1 percent of levels settlers encountered more than 200 years ago.

The shellfish are crucial elements of the estuary's ecosystem. Not only do they clean the water, but the reefs they form are vital habitat for other creatures.

The state bet heavily on sanctuaries as a strategy to rebuild the population under the administration of former Gov. Martin O'Malley, expanding them from 9 percent of the area where oysters live in the bay to 24 percent of it.

The sanctuary strategy has been headed for an evolution, if not major changes, since Hogan took office.

That started in 2015 when the state paused a federal effort to build artificial reefs seeded with lab-grown oyster larvae in some of the sanctuaries. Officials allowed the work to resume late last year after a study found the effort was helping the oyster population to increase.

Now, the Natural Resources Department is guiding the commission's work to potentially redraw the sanctuary lines, an effort to keep both oyster populations and oyster harvests growing.

Donald Boesch, outgoing president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, has asked state officials for the scientific rationale for opening up sanctuaries — especially densely populated ones.

Boesch and other scientists and advocates on the state oyster panel also say they need to give the proposed map a closer look to determine what impact it could have on oyster abundance. Peyton Robertson, director of NOAA's Chesapeake Bay office, acknowledged it's difficult to tell, at first glance. That means a lot of work is ahead for the panel.

Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the industry would be satisfied with access to a rotation of sanctuaries at busy times of the year for sales, such as before Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"We're not talking about opening a section for the entire season," he said.

That aspect of the plan is stirring less controversy.

"Everyone wants a viable and sustainable oyster fishery," said Ann Swanson, director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a collaboration between Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. "The concept of a rotational fishery is an exciting one because it allows for sort of a rest-and-fish approach as opposed to just constant fishing pressure."

But the question of which sanctuaries to open? "That's going to be a lightning rod," she said.

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