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Sanctuaries on the half-shell

Why risk the future of the Chesapeake Bay for the sake of a relatively small number of oysters today?

Nineteenth century industrialist Andrew Carnegie once observed that the "first man gets the oyster, the second man gets the shell." So it should come as no surprise that last summer's survey results that found Maryland oysters thriving in protected "sanctuary" areas in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries while oysters available to harvest by watermen have declined in recent years would launch a veritable oyster-rush on those sanctuaries.

Under a plan recently presented to the state's Oyster Advisory Commission by the Department of Natural Resources, thousands more oysters could end up in the bushel baskets of watermen beginning Oct. 1. That might be good news for the local seafood market, but the impact on overall oyster reproduction and the aquatic habitat that relies on the presence of the water-filtering bivalves is not so clear. The proposal would shrink existing oyster sanctuaries by more than 10 percent, opening hundreds of acres of productive oyster bottom to watermen.

A lot of watermen have long detested the sanctuary approach, a conservation policy greatly expanded by then-Gov. Martin O'Malley seven years ago. For decades, the oyster industry has suffered as stocks have declined, a victim of pollution, overfishing and the diseases MSX and Dermo. Recent improvements in oysters' numbers (above-average spat sets in 2010 and 2012) have caused some to wonder why the DNR can't return to the policies of the early 1980s when watermen faced far fewer restrictions on the harvest of oysters and the tasty species survived just fine.

But that was then and this is now. The outlook for oysters may have improved somewhat over the last decade, but there are still far fewer than there were a generation ago. That they have thrived best in sanctuaries has once again demonstrated the importance of restricting their harvest — each mature oyster caught and removed from its bed is one less to reproduce and create millions of "spat" or baby oysters that settle on the shells of their predecessors, and so on year after year.

The proposal might have been worse, of course. It impacts just seven of the state's 51 sanctuaries. It even creates new sanctuaries and expands a handful of existing ones. But, as environmental groups including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have pointed out, there isn't yet any scientific data demonstrating that it's now safe to open up any sanctuary for harvest. Given the very nature of an oyster sanctuary as a kind of insurance policy for the species, it would seem premature to turn over a single acre for harvest, let alone nearly 1,000. And it's particularly ill-timed considering that the Maryland General Assembly just last year authorized a full assessment of oyster stocks, an inventory that won't be completed until the end of next year and will likely answer such basic questions as how effective oyster sanctuaries are.

It's no secret that Gov. Larry Hogan has much stronger political backing from rural Eastern Shore counties generally, and watermen specifically, than Governor O'Malley ever had. But that's no reason to endanger oysters, the Chesapeake Bay's health and the livelihood of future watermen. Indeed, DNR officials themselves seem open to discussion on the issue, with DNR Secretary Mark Belton recently telling the Bay Journal's Timothy B. Wheeler that the plan is "not a DNR proposal" and more of a launching point for the commission's review and recommendations.

Average Marylanders will need to speak out in the coming weeks as the regulations are developed if only to offset the voices of those who work on the water and have a financial stake in literally being the first to the oysters. The precedent posed by opening sanctuaries is particularly troubling if it moves the state toward a "put and take" arrangement in which oyster propagation programs are perceived only as a way to underwrite the commercial seafood industry. Better for Maryland to be focused on aquaculture and helping watermen make the transition toward farming oysters, a far more financially reliable and environmentally beneficial occupation.

That last point underscores the other half of the equation: Maryland not only has too few oysters, it has too many people licensed to catch them, a product of those good spat sets of five and seven years ago which caused more watermen to join the fray. Yet the drop-off in abundance of oysters in harvested areas since then has made it difficult for them to make a living. Virginia has experienced the same problem and has taken to a "rotational" harvest, which means opening and closing oyster beds from season to season. Even that has reportedly proven insufficient, however. Given the investment federal and state taxpayers have made in oyster sanctuaries in Maryland and the bivalve's still-uncertain future, it's premature to give away such a precious resource to the first comer.

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