Oyster expert Don Boesch steps aside

The Marine ecologist who served on Maryland oyster commissions for more than 20 years is stepping away from his shellfish-related duties. As the year ends with major changes for Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration ahead, Don Boesch shared his thoughts on the Department of Natural Resource’s latest announcements.

For the last three years, Maryland has been working with other states surrounding the bay to build five tributaries to restore native oyster habitat and populations by 2025. Tributaries were built in Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River and the Tred Avon River. On Dec. 15, Breton Bay and the St. Mary’s River were chosen for the last two tributaries.

Boesch says the St. Mary’s River will do well for restoration, but he’s critical of the Department of Natural Resource’s choice of Bretton Bay.

“Bretton Bay was a more political pick. From a scientific standpoint, it’s problematic. It doesn’t get regular spat, so you’ll have to keep planting it,” he said.

Boesch served as president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science for 27 years before stepping down in September to focus on oyster restoration research in the Chesapeake Bay. Boesch says he’ll also be exiting the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission since joining at its start in 2007.

“I’ve been trying to bring science and data to the discussion,” Boesch said. “I’ve done it long enough. It’s time for younger scientists to participate.”

The 71-year-old has advised five Maryland governors; the Chesapeake Bay Program; and President Obama, serving on his National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. He says he’s been serving on oyster panels like the OAC since the early ’90s.

“At the time when they started, they wanted to move oysters from the upper part of the Bay to the lower, but that would also move disease,” Boesch recalled.

Next, he said the counsel wanted to try introducing an Asian “miracle” oyster to the Bay that would be immune to disease. But with too many unknown factors, like whether or not the new oysters would be controllable, Boesch said “miracle” oysters were deemed not worth the risk. Restoring the existing oyster population would be best, they decided.

This prompted then Gov. Martin O’Malley to form the OAC in 2007. The strategy would be to build the oyster population in sanctuaries, develop strategies for fishery management and raise an aquaculture.

Boesch said the first couple of years in the OAC were prosperous.

“In the first year or so, we were remarkably successful in coming up with a plan that advanced aquaculture and developed a rationale for the sanctuaries.”

The Natural Resources Department also announced it would use rotational harvesting at the sanctuaries, which would allow watermen access to oyster bar sanctuaries at certain times. While Boesch and watermen often clash in opinion, he doesn’t disagree with rotational harvesting.

“It does require that you have to have a shell supply,” he said. “It’s not exactly clear whether the harvesters pay for it or the state. The bigger issue with respect to the sanctuaries is that some of these rotational harvest areas would be put into existing sanctuaries, as long as it’s not a way to declassify and open them up. Among other things, they restrict harvest for about three years until the oysters grow. But where do you get the shell and who pays for it?”

Boesch said the longer the OAC has been deliberating, the harder it’s been to make progress.

“In the first phase we set a blueprint that really made some things happen. Now, we’re kind of stuck all around this kind of objection, which I don’t really understand, to advancing the sanctuaries…We seem to be stuck on issues.”

Boesch did say he’s confident the OAC can save the Bay’s oysters.

“Not to where they were, but significantly more than where they are now.”

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