'Oyster wars:' Watermen aim to take back oyster bars as state panel reviews shellfish sanctuaries

One in four Maryland oysters lives in a sanctuary, but watermen could have a chance to change that.

Shells carrying millions of lab-grown baby oysters tumbled down the sides of a green-hulled boat named Robert Lee, and the $35,000 investment sank into the Choptank River where it widens to meet the Chesapeake.

The oysters, planted this past week, will grow there for two or three years before watermen scoop them back up and restaurants serve them fried or on ice.

Nearby, other oyster reefs are restocked in the same manner but are off-limits to harvesting. These sanctuaries across bay tributaries help the shellfish recover from decades of disease outbreaks, and overfishing before that, and have been expanded in recent years to cover nearly a quarter of the bay's 36,000 acres of oyster bars.

Watermen could soon reclaim some of that territory.

Amid an experiment to bring Maryland oysters back from the brink, the administration of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is reconsidering strategies launched in 2010. The approach cordoned off some of the bay's oyster population from dredges and oyster tongs, built new habitats atop artificial reefs and also provided a reproductive boost by artificially growing young oysters and spreading them in the bay.

Scientists and environmentalists emphasize that sanctuaries boost reproduction rates and foster disease resistance, because harvesting takes the largest and hardiest oysters out of the gene pool.

But watermen who know the oyster bars intimately question whether the bivalves multiply and thrive any better in the sanctuaries, and whether the work to build artificial reefs amounts to dumping money into the brackish waters. They say the harvest restrictions have challenged an industry that was already reeling.

State officials have charged an advisory panel — which recently gained a half-dozen watermen as members — with broadly evaluating how oysters are faring both inside and outside sanctuaries, and whether some areas could be reopened to commercial harvest.

In what could signal a new direction, state officials plan to decide within two weeks whether to restart a controversial oyster restoration project that the Hogan administration put on hold in a Choptank tributary. The state and federal government have put $44 million into three such projects.

Watermen are skeptical of the efforts, while proponents say the state could be passing up millions of dollars in federal funding if they scrap the latest one.

Maryland's overarching goal has been to increase the oyster population for its ecological benefits. The creatures once filtered all of the water in the bay in a matter of days, and could do much to help current bay cleanup efforts. The reefs are also a vital habitat for crabs, fish and other creatures.

State officials say science will guide decisions, but environmentalists worry that a renewed emphasis the Hogan administration has placed on the oysters' value to the seafood industry could influence outcomes.

The sparring is expected to start Monday, when the state's Oyster Advisory Commission starts its accelerated process to review oyster restoration in the Tred Avon River, the Choptank tributary.

"Oysters are very political," said Kelton Clark, a commission member and director of Morgan State University's Patuxent Environmental and Aquatic Research Laboratory. "Every stakeholder seems to feel their use of the bay is the most important use of the bay."

For watermen, the fight for their way of life dates back generations, said Ben Parks, who has spent his life crabbing and oystering around the Choptank.

"It's been like oyster wars since back in the early 1900s."

Sanctuary strategy

Marylanders might identify the blue crab as the iconic shellfish of the Chesapeake, but oysters have defined the bay for centuries. The estuary gets its name from an Algonquin word meaning "great shellfish bay," and oysters were once so abundant that mountainous reefs made of oyster shells posed hazards to ships.

Through the late 1800s, watermen annually harvested as many as 15 million bushels of oysters from the bay, but since then overfishing and disease have diminished the population to less than 1 percent of historical levels.

As the country grew — and the seafood industry with it — harvests fell to a few million bushels a year by the early 1900s. Plagues of disease in last quarter of the 20th century reduced harvests to a record low: less than 30,000 bushels by 2004.

Harvests have since rebounded to as many as half a million bushels, thanks to broader bay cleanup efforts and oyster bar "seeding" that has been taking place since the 1990s.

Oyster larvae are grown at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, or are imported from Virginia, then poured into tanks so they can attach to shells, at which point they become known as spat. Some are dropped into sanctuaries; others into reefs that can be harvested.

The Maryland-grown spat is raised with money from a $1-per-bushel fee charged to seafood processing companies and distributors, and a $300 annual surcharge on oystering licenses.

This latest strategy followed decades of fierce debate among policymakers, environmentalists and the seafood industry over how to best increase the population.

Under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the early 2000s, the state nearly adopted a strategy that would have introduced Asian oysters to the bay, a move environmentalists criticized as potentially disastrous.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, abandoned that idea, instead betting on sanctuaries. The protected areas, sometimes marked with buoys or just as shaded polygons on maps, covered 9 percent of the state's oyster bottom when O'Malley unveiled a plan in 2010 that he declared "the turning point" for the shellfish species.

Today, there are more than 50 sanctuaries covering 24 percent of oyster habitat in the bay, including half of what scientists and watermen consider the most productive oyster bars.

"Watermen are harvesting the survivors and the fast growers," said Bill Goldsborough, fisheries director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "That's kind of counterproductive for natural selection, so over time, you end up with slower-growing oysters and smaller oysters on average. That's not good for anybody."

In the sanctuaries of three tributaries, the efforts are more aggressive. President Barack Obama has charged Maryland and Virginia with restoring oyster populations to historical levels in five bay tributaries each.

The directive prompted the millions in state and federal dollars to be spent on 400 acres of artificial reefs seeded with more than 2 billion spat in the Tred Avon and Little Choptank rivers and the Harris Creek, all part of the larger Choptank River complex.

Five years into the work, a scheduled review is due, and the Hogan administration has hinted that policy changes could be ahead.

Decisions ahead

"We really want you to take a hard look at the data and let us know what you think," Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton told the state oyster commission earlier this month at its first meeting since Hogan's election in 2014.

Years ago, before it went dormant, the panel helped map the oyster sanctuaries and choose the three restoration sites. At the time, the panel was largely made up of scientists and environmentalists, plus two or three watermen.

The 23-member group Belton reconvened this summer is significantly more diverse, with at least six watermen, two representatives from the seafood industry and others sympathetic to it.

By the end of this month, members will be handed hundreds of pages of reports on oyster densities and reproduction rates around the bay. By Aug. 5, their first decision is due: whether to proceed with restoring oyster bars in the Tred Avon, a 147-acre project the Hogan administration put on pause late last year.

State officials decided to delay even though 16 acres of reefs were in the middle of construction, and the state lost $1 million in federal money for another planned 8 acres. That money was diverted to efforts in Virginia.

It may not be easy for members of the commission to agree. Preliminary data shows progress in oyster reef growth in the Tred Avon, but that may not be enough to quiet a philosophical debate about the merits of the project, Goldsborough said.

Those who support the project say the state shouldn't risk federal money, which comes through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the commission should take all the time it needs to make an informed decision, even if blowing the deadline means giving up funding.

The group must also set a course for another decade of oyster restoration efforts by identifying two additional tributaries for more aggressive restoration work.

Belton said he is giving stakeholders latitude in interpreting data and offering recommendations, but he also set parameters that reveal some of administration preferences. He told The Baltimore Sun that as long as sanctuaries are maintained on 20 percent to 30 percent of oyster habitat, he would consider suggestions to open some preserved areas for harvesting on at least a rotational basis.

Regarding the two new restoration sites, he has intimated that they should be on the western shore of the bay — and that cost should be a driving factor in the choice. Belton encouraged the oyster panel to discuss whether some oyster bars could thrive without the state paying to restock them.

"The less we have to charge our taxpayers for, the better," he told the commissioners.

Giving watermen a voice

Watermen hope the process to guide Hogan's oyster policy goes differently than the one that began in 2010.

Parks, the waterman on the Choptank, served on the commission as early as 2008 and said discussions back then went as well as could be expected — considering that some were talking about a moratorium on oystering.

Still, oystermen feel an unfair share of oyster bottom is within the sanctuaries.

Jeff Harrison, who has launched oyster boats from Tilghman Island for 40 years, said work done in Harris Creek and elsewhere has actually made conditions worse for shellfish. He said barges delivering slabs of granite to build artificial reefs stirred up mud that can smother spat to death, and stone was laid on top of what were already functioning oyster bars.

Watermen are eager to see the latest data, hoping it shows more oyster bars could afford to give up some harvest. About 790 oystering permit holders reported pulling up oysters in the season that ran from last October through March.

"Even a week here or a week there in some of these places would help the watermen a lot," Parks said.

Conservationists are wary of the Hogan administration's sympathy for watermen. Groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation were concerned when the state paused the Tred Avon project in response to concerns from the seafood industry, because the project had already been designed and approved with input from the public, including watermen.

Members of the panel acknowledge that their work will require a balance.

"The bottom belongs to the public and the state; it doesn't belong to one constituency," said Peyton Robertson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay Office.

But this time around one of those constituencies — watermen — will have a greater voice than in the past.

"Nobody beats them as far as observing what's actually happening out there," Belton said.



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