Worried that the recovery of Chesapeake Bay oysters may be faltering, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest convened a congressional hearing in Annapolis yesterday to review state and federal efforts to boost depleted shellfish stocks.
Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican and chairman of the House subcommittee on Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, said he wants to ensure sufficient federal funding for the restoration effort while exploring whether more areas of the bay bottom should be set aside to shield oysters from commercial harvest.
"We have our communities set aside where people live. It only seems reasonable to have places set aside for wildlife - whatever you want to call it, a marine protected area, a sanctuary," Gilchrest said.
He said he is looking to expand the federal law creating "marine protected areas" where fishing would be restricted if not forbidden.
Oysters once dominated the Chesapeake's seafood harvest, but their numbers have plunged since the early 1900s because of disease, pollution and overfishing. Maryland's commercial harvest, once about 24 million bushels a year, plummeted to 79,618 bushels in the 1993-1994 season, then started rebounding slowly with the help of state and federal programs.
The catch reached about 423,000 bushels during the 1998-1999 season, the highest in 12 years, but slipped last season to about 347,000 bushels. Prospects for this season, which began Oct. 1, don't look very good.
Need for sanctuaries
Officials in the state Department of Natural Resources say they aren't surprised by the decline because annual surveys show a drop in the number of baby oysters, or spat, since 1997. The shellfish need three years to grow to harvestable size.
The drop-off demonstrates how difficult it is to restore the bay's oyster population in the face of water-quality problems, fishing pressure and shellfish diseases such as Dermo and MSX, said Eric C. Schwaab, DNR's director of fisheries.
Schwaab emphasized the need for completing a network of permanent oyster sanctuaries on large reefs throughout the bay as part of the multimillion-dollar effort to revive the bay's oyster stock. Maryland, Virginia and the federal government agreed last year to seek a 10-fold increase in the bay's oyster stock as part of a new bay restoration pact.
"We believe the sanctuary effort is absolutely critical" to restore the bay's oyster population, DNR officials said. Maryland started with three sanctuaries five years ago, now has 24 and expects to create more as part of a 10-year, $25 million recovery effort.
The sanctuaries are part of a plan proposed two years ago by Chesapeake Bay scientists to set aside 10 percent of the bay's historical oyster-bar acreage. Harvest-free sanctuaries would help sustain the commercial oyster fishery while helping to restore the bay, the scientists said.
The sanctuaries, surrounded by "managed reserves" where oyster harvesting would be allowed, are among the keys to recovery, said Mike F. Hirshfield, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation vice president. Oysters filter pollution, improving water clarity and allowing light critical for underwater vegetation to penetrate the surface.
Sherman Baynard, president of the Coastal Conservation Association, a group of sport fishermen, said he was worried that oyster sanctuaries would be used to deny recreational fishermen access to fishing grounds. He said he isn't "opposed to the concept" of sanctuaries and marine protected areas if the laws establishing them state explicitly what is allowed and what is prohibited in those areas.