Two leading environmental groups say Maryland's main oyster recovery program shouldcreate more protected sanctuaries if the shellfish are ever to make a comeback in the Chesapeake Bay.
The advocates say the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership, which has received $10 million in federal funds since 2002, has placed too much emphasis on helping watermen and not enough on growing the bay's struggling oyster population.
"We would like to see oysters managed for their ecological value, and currently, sanctuaries are the only opportunity to do that," said Sherman Baynard, fisheries chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association. "If you're going to commit public tax dollars, you need to focus your money and your activities on restoration."
Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland, agreed. "We need to design a program so it actually expands the number of oysters in the bay," Heavner said. "The best way to do that is to expand sanctuaries where oysters can't be harvested."
In recent decades, the bay's oysters were nearly wiped out by over-harvesting and disease. The population remains at record lows today.
The Sun reported Sunday that while the Oyster Recovery Partnership has planted nearly a billion hatchery-raised oysters since 2000, less than a third have been put in protected sanctuaries. Most have been planted in places where they can be harvested by watermen and sold.
The newspaper also found that the partnership is paying the Maryland Watermen's Association nearly $400,000 this year to remove diseased oysters from one part of the bay and dump them in another. Proponents say this practice helps other oysters survive, but it has no proven scientific value. Critics say a primary purpose is to provide income for watermen.
The partnership also used $46,000 in federal funds to hold its annual dinner at the Hyatt Regency golf resort and spa in Cambridge. The organization gets its annual funding through a federal budget "earmark" arranged by U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.
In an e-mail sent this week to the group's board members and staff, ORP chairman Torrey C. Brown defended the organization's work. "Maryland's watermen contribute to the state's economy in numerous ways, including oyster harvesting," Brown wrote. "To deny them is to deny the many Maryland businesses that depend on our oysters and deny the thousands of tourists who visit our state in part due to the lore of our famous oysters."
One prominent environmental organization, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, issued a statement this week praising both Mikulski and the partnership's oyster planting. "Senator Mikulski's efforts, in particular, have been nothing short of extraordinary, and the ORP, through its work, has done much to elevate the significance of restoration, planting approximately a billion native oysters since 2000," the statement said.
A Bay Foundation scientist is a member of the ORP board and is involved in making decisions about where the oysters are planted. The partnership paid for four Bay Foundation employees and two guests to attend the dinner at the Hyatt Regency, the Bay Foundation acknowledges. Two of the six stayed the night on the partnership's tab.
Among those criticizing the partnership's use of federal money to pay for the dinner was state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican. "You shouldn't be fattening up scientists or participants at the expense of the actual oysters," Stoltzfus said.
But Stoltzfus said he supports the partnership's efforts to help watermen economically. Leading Democrats in Annapolis declined to comment on the partnership's spending.
Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which advises Maryland and other states on bay policy, agreed with Environment Maryland and the Coastal Conservation Association that the Oyster Recovery Partnership needs to put more oysters in sanctuaries.
Swanson added that she hopes the issues raised in the article about the partnership's spending do not result in less public money for oyster projects.
"The concerns raised here should not discourage federal support of oyster recovery," Swanson said. "It should re-emphasize our need to properly target and strategically invest and make every penny matter."
Leading oyster scientists have said the partnership's policy of letting watermen harvest many of the oysters it plants does not make sense. The oysters need to remain in the bay so the ones that survive disease can reproduce and perpetuate the species.
"If you're serious about the ecological value of oysters, then they must remain in the bay and live," veteran oyster biologist George Krantz, former fisheries director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said in Sunday's article.
But DNR Secretary John R. Griffin said this week that there are "continuing, legitimate debates" about the right approach for oyster restoration, a tricky proposition given the diseases in the bay.
"Would I like to personally see more emphasis on sanctuaries? Yes," Griffin said. "But some of this is part of a learning curve."
Griffin said he's optimistic that a soon-to-be-formed state task force will review the partnership's planting techniques and advise the group on whether they're scientifically sound.