Watermen: Open Anne Arundel oyster sanctuaries to harvesting

rpacella@capgaznews.com

Herring Bay near Deale has eight historic oyster bars, all of them protected from harvesting because the area is an oyster sanctuary.

But some commercial watermen say working small sanctuaries like Herring Bay could be better for the oysters, water, and people in the long run.

Bill Scerbo, president of the Anne Arundel Watermen’s Association, wants to see sanctuaries like those in county waters reopened to commercial fishing. They say right now oysters in some low-salinity sanctuaries, like Herring Bay, aren’t reproducing naturally.

“A lot of oysters have died of old age up here and haven’t been replaced,” the Shady Side resident said.

That wish is likely to be part of a grand environmental policy debate when the General Assembly returns to Annapolis next month. Lawmakers will consider changes to the state’s oyster harvesting plan in light of a major new study of the oyster population in Maryland.

Compiled over 18 months at the request of legislators, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science found that during the last two decades the state’s oyster population has declined by half, from about 600 million market-sized oysters in 1999 to about 300 million today.

Scientists found that more than half of the areas surveyed were overfished.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis said the report confirmed its worst fears, and called to protect and enhance oyster reefs. And they cast rejected any notion of opening small sanctuaries like those in Herring Bay.

“Armed with this new science, now is the time for Maryland leaders to make meaningful changes to the oyster fishery,” foundation fisheries scientist Alison Colden wrote in a guest column for The Capital. “It will not be easy — there are centuries’ worth of thorny politics involved. But the continued decline of the oyster population suggests the current management of the state’s oyster fishery is not working.”

Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist with the bay foundation, said opening more areas to harvest would be ill-advised at this point, noting that the oyster population is likely even lower than the report projected because of a rainy 2018.

Instead, the environmental group supports protecting reefs in sanctuaries, pursuing large-scale restoration and supporting Maryland’s burgeoning oyster farming industry.

In 2010 the state's Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan designated 24 percent of the oyster habitat in the bay as off-limits for harvesting, including Herring Bay. Those are in addition to the massive, federally funded oyster sanctuaries created on the Eastern Shore over the last several years and two more planned for Southern Maryland.

Scerbo, however, said a well-managed fishery and money to enhance oyster bars would improve their health. The Department of Natural Resources would need to evaluate the bar beforehand, decide when to open it and then decide when to close it again once a certain amount of oysters are harvested, he said.

Watermen have reported beds covered in silt. Annual surveys haven’t found spat at Holland Point, a spot inside the Herring Bay sanctuary, since 2010.

“If letting them sit for the last five or six years hasn’t helped those bars, I would like to see some kind of a program where the watermen and the fishery could enhance those bars,” Scerbo said.

Watermen would rotate the use of the bars the same way farmers rotate crops, giving the oysters time to grow, he said. And they’re not asking to harvest from large-scale restoration projects.

Ryan Mould has oystered for four years. He is oystering again this season, but started late, citing a poor outlook because of the amount of rain this year and a low, bushel-an-hour harvest rate at the end of last season.

Scerbo said Mould and other Anne Arundel watermen travel south to oyster because of the number of sanctuaries in local waters.

The DNR presented the stock assessment to the legislature at the start of this month. Included in the report were a list of management options, but it noted that a process that involves public comment should decide the course management takes. The state is also revising its oyster management plan.

House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, R-Pasadena, said the future of oyster management will be a big one, though he is confident common ground, or bottom, can be found.

“There is bipartisan agreement that a healthy oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay is essential for the bay’s health,” Kipke said. “I’m hopeful we can come together to support legislation protecting oyster populations and help continue making progress in improving the health of the bay.”

Scerbo sees one challenge for the session already: educating new legislators about oysters — a shellfish with a complex political, economic and scientific history.

Oyster are always a volatile political issue, he said.

“It will be just as volatile and emotional this season I’m afraid,” Scerbo said. “I just hope the facts stay in the room when the people start yelling.”

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