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Assembly passes bill to block state from opening oyster sanctuaries to harvest

State lawmakers have quashed talks over whether and how to open Chesapeake Bay oyster sanctuaries to harvest, passing a bill that blocks any changes to the protected areas' boundaries for nearly two years.

The measure, approved by veto-proof margins, comes as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's administration and a state commission were considering a plan that could have periodically opened 11 percent of the 8,600 acres of sanctuaries to watermen.

The bill passed this week renders that work moot, to the frustration of administration officials.

Environmentalists argued the legislation ensures any future decisions to revise sanctuary maps are well-informed. It prohibits the administration from reducing or altering oyster sanctuaries until a thorough assessment of the species, launched last year, is completed in 2018.

Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said until the study is done, the state does not have a good measurement of the size of the oyster population. "We don't have the overall picture," she said.

But the votes in the House and Senate drew sharp criticism from state Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton, who accused lawmakers of meddling in an independent process "to appease special interest groups."

"Their vote demonstrates a disdain of the commission's progress and for science itself," Belton said in a statement. He said the lawmakers' action was "based on fear, not the facts."

The bill adds a fresh layer of political intrigue to a series of conflicts pitting the Hogan administration and the seafood industry against the Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists. The latter have accused the governor of putting watermen above wildlife, including in the administration's decision last month to fire a veteran crab scientist.

Administration officials have said they are simply giving crabbers and oystermen a voice they lacked under former Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Now, the watermen say they're caught flat-footed, just as they thought they had worked out a way to regain some valuable territory for oyster dredging even as they supported other sanctuaries.

"We were working along pretty well and this thing came right out of left field and kind of derailed everything we've been working toward," said Jim Mullin, director of the Maryland Oystermen Association. "It poked us in the eye with a stick. It's unfortunate."

The General Assembly created the Oyster Advisory Commission a decade ago. Under O'Malley, a Democrat, it laid out a map that cordoned off a quarter of the 36,000 acres of oyster bars in the Maryland portion of the bay. The bay's oyster population is said to be at less than 1 percent of pre-Colonial levels because of overfishing and disease.

Last July, Belton reconvened the group and added half a dozen watermen to its membership, which also includes lawmakers, scientists and environmentalists. He told the panel to explore whether there might be a way to open some sanctuaries to watermen while still maintaining a sustainable oyster population.

The commission helped settle one conflict on oyster politics that was sparked last year when, at the behest of watermen, the Hogan administration stalled one of three federally funded projects to build artificial oyster reefs to bolster sanctuaries on the Eastern Shore. The watermen questioned whether the spending was worthwhile.

After reviewing data showing those efforts are productive, the panel allowed the work to move forward, though Maryland lost $1 million in federal money to Virginia because of the delay.

This year, the group had begun to tackle negotiations over the future of the rest of the state's sanctuaries. It was considering a plan that would have opened up about 1,000 acres of oyster sanctuaries to harvesting for undetermined stretches of time every few years.

Belton said that plan was only a draft and that he did not endorse it. He described it as a synthesis of the wishes of environmentalists, watermen and other bay stakeholders.

Watermen were suggesting a compromise that would involve keeping the most successful sanctuaries intact. They offered to invest in spreading lab-grown oysters on lower-performing oyster bars in exchange for periodic opportunities to harvest from those areas, Mullin said.

But Del. James Gilchrist, a Montgomery County Democrat, was meanwhile drafting the legislation to bypass the deliberations.

Last year, lawmakers had ordered what is known as a stock assessment, a thorough census and analysis that has been conducted with other valuable bay species, but not oysters. Once the sanctuary plan became public, though, it appeared some sanctuaries could be opened before that report's December 2018 deadline.

The bill moved through the legislature swiftly. The House of Delegates approved it March 16, and it sped through the Senate in less than two weeks.

Del. Kumar Barve, a Montgomery Democrat who sponsored the bill, said he and other lawmakers were spurred to action when it appeared a likely possibility sanctuaries would be opened to watermen.

"I'm sorry, that's not why we created sanctuaries," he said.

Del. Johnny Mautz, an Eastern Shore Republican who sits on the oyster commission, countered that data evaluating the first five years of the sanctuaries' performance should have been enough to support changes.

Senators held lengthy debates on the bill this week before passing it, 32-14. Some Republicans offered amendments to scale back the bill that were easily shot down by the Democratic majority.

The House of Delegates had approved the bill, 102-39. Both vote totals represent veto-proof margins.

The legislation is set to take effect in June and can become law without Hogan's signature. Administration officials did not respond to questions about whether Hogan would veto the measure.

Regardless, the oyster commission will continue efforts to choose two more bay tributaries where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will construct and seed more man-made oyster reefs.

The watermen are left discouraged once again, Mullin said. They don't see any wiggle room within the legislation, which blindsided them.

"I've never seen anything like it," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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