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Restoring hope in a half shell

Ben Cardin on oyster restoration, a.k.a. renewed 'hope in a half shell.'

From proud skipjacks and dockside communities to the finest restaurants and back street bars in Baltimore, oysters have played a unique role in Maryland's history. Sadly, that role is imperiled, but not irreversibly so. We have taken some important first steps toward restoring Maryland's oyster populations. It is now time for decisive strides.

In many areas of the Chesapeake Bay, oyster reefs used to be immense. It was common for them to extend from the seafloor to the surface. These oyster reefs were as magnificent as coral reefs in tropical waters — and similarly important as essential habitat for treasured species like rockfish and blue crabs. These abundant oyster populations also once acted like a giant swimming pool filter, removing particles while feeding and making the water clear for underwater grasses to flourish and sustain water quality.

Sadly, native oyster populations in our Chesapeake, our country and world have been decimated. What's more, harvesting and burial by sediment also remove essential nursery habitat for baby oysters.

Now, with less than 1 percent of the historic levels of Chesapeake Bay oysters, our state and federal governments have made restoring oysters in the bay a top priority. But after decades of overharvest, oyster diseases and degraded water quality, restoring oyster populations will require a concerted, long-term effort, along with political will, citizen support and continued funding.

There have been some important steps taken to restore oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland has created one of the country's most advanced oyster hatcheries at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science laboratory in Cambridge. Each year, this hatchery produces hundreds of millions of young oysters that are planted in Chesapeake Bay.

Additionally, in 2010, oyster sanctuaries in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay were increased from 9 to 24 percent of present-day oyster reefs. Creating these no-harvest zones was a necessary action to help reverse the decline in the face of historically low population levels.

Left alone, oysters in these sanctuaries will proliferate and form the complex reefs and habitat that used to be a hallmark of the Chesapeake Bay. Their larvae will be carried to areas outside of the sanctuaries, where they can support sustainable harvests by Maryland watermen.

Marine sanctuaries have been used throughout the world to effectively restore and sustain fisheries. While usually met with initial resistance from fishing communities, sanctuaries can become the focus of ardent support by fishermen as fish and shellfish catches increase in harvest areas outside of the sanctuaries. We hope this is the case for the Chesapeake Bay and envision a future in which oyster sanctuaries become permanent features like the underwater state and national parks established to protect coral reefs.

Instead of harvesting the diminished populations of wild oysters, more Maryland watermen are turning to "oyster farming," or growing and harvesting oysters. While new to Maryland, most oysters harvested in Asia, Europe and the west coast of the U.S. are produced from oyster aquaculture. Virginia also has established a major aquaculture industry in recent years, illustrating that the protected waters and abundant oyster food in Chesapeake Bay make it an ideal place for oyster farming.

Sustainable aquaculture practices produce a high-quality oyster product available throughout the year, growing small businesses in rural areas, creating much-needed jobs and improving local water quality. Both Maryland and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers need to continue their ongoing work to streamline the permitting process to facilitate entry of Marylanders into oyster aquaculture. We appreciate their ongoing efforts to address this challenge.

Healthy, abundant oyster reefs are a shared resource for all Marylanders that must be restored and sustained for a healthy Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Increases in the Chesapeake Bay oyster populations of all kinds will improve water quality, enhance recreational and commercial fishing, and help create a sustainable and productive Chesapeake Bay.

Because they matter so much to so many people, as well as to the Chesapeake Bay itself, discussions about oyster management and restoration strategies must include as many perspectives as possible. Investments in all types of efforts to return more oysters to the Chesapeake Bay must expand immediately to reflect the true historic and potential future, importance of oysters.

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, is a senior member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works; Twitter: @SenatorCardin. Michael Roman is the Director of the Horn Point Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science; his email is roman@umces.edu.

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