Helping oysters rebound

The Baltimore Sun

A high-profile state task force is recommending that Maryland stop spending millions of dollars to plant oysters in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries only to let watermen harvest them.

The 21-member Oyster Advisory Commission says the state should stop paying for such "managed reserves" over the next several years and instead help watermen learn how to raise oysters at their own expense for sale to restaurants and seafood businesses.

"I just don't think the public is going to be willing to pay very much longer for a couple hundred guys to make some of their income harvesting oysters," William Eichbaum, chairman of the advisory commission and a vice president of the World Wildlife Fund, said yesterday.

The commission's report, to be presented in Annapolis next week, calls for Maryland to expand its efforts to rebuild the bay's disease-ravaged oyster population by restoring lost reefs and planting millions of bushels of hatchery-reared oysters. But the panel says oysters planted on the bottom at public expense ought to be left there to help clean up the bay and to improve chances that some will develop resistance to disease.

State Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin welcomed the commission's report Thursday, calling it "a great framework ... to direct a new course for oyster restoration." He said the O'Malley administration already is acting on some of the recommendations and would study the others.

Oysters filter nutrients and sediment from the water - the pollutants most responsible for the bay's degraded condition. In the late 1800s, when commercial harvests topped 10 million bushels a year, the bivalves were so abundant that scientists estimate they could filter all the bay's water in less than a week.

But overfishing, loss of reefs on which oysters can grow and a pair of diseases, MSX and Dermo, have reduced the bay's population to just 1 percent of historic levels. Harvests in recent years have fallen below 100,000 bushels, despite a replanting effort that has put hundreds of millions of hatchery-reared oysters in the bay.

The commission was created by the General Assembly in 2007 to recommend what the state could do both to revive the once-abundant species and to help the state's flagging seafood industry. After more than a year's study, the panel says the state should focus public funds on rebuilding and reseeding lost oyster reefs and halting commercial harvesting of the shellfish from much, if not most, of the bay.

It recommends closing entire rivers to harvesting, while encouraging aquaculture by overhauling the state's laws for leasing areas of the bay and strengthening enforcement against poaching of private and public oyster stocks. Even so, it cautions that recovery could take decades.

If carried out, the panel's recommendations would effectively end decades of government subsidies for the oyster industry in which millions in state and federal funds were spent to replenish oyster reefs while allowing watermen to reap many of the benefits.

"That patchwork system has not brought back large populations and doesn't look likely to," Eichbaum said.

The Baltimore Sun has reported that a government-financed nonprofit, the Oyster Recovery Partnership, spent more than $10 million in federal funds from 2000 to 2007 on projects that largely benefited watermen. While the group planted more than a billion oysters, the majority were put in the so-called "managed reserves" where watermen were allowed to take them after several years.

In the past year, in the wake of The Sun's report, the partnership has shifted most of its planting to sanctuaries where the oysters cannot be harvested, according to Stephan Abel, the group's executive director.

"For years I've been suggesting we have to decide what we're going to do: Are we going to just focus on the fishery or focus on the habitat?" said Victor Kennedy, an oyster researcher at the University of Maryland's Horn Point laboratory. He noted that if the oyster population were to recover, the rebound could eventually be of benefit to watermen.

The O'Malley administration is proposing revisions to state laws governing leasing of the bay and its bottom to encourage more oyster farming, or aquaculture. It also is planning to spend several million dollars to help watermen make the transition into aquaculture, rather than roaming the bay to gather oysters left in the wild.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said he "could see the handwriting on the wall" and would work with the state to get watermen financial assistance to try growing their own oysters.

But he said it was unrealistic to expect the bay's native oyster population to rebound from the diseases, and he questioned whether the state could afford the massive investments in reef rebuilding and hatchery production the commission calls for - $40 million or more a year, eight times what has been spent the past several years.

Bunky Chance, an oysterman from Bozman in Talbot County, was even more critical. He said the changes recommended by the commission would be "the death knell" for Maryland's long-standing public fishery and the traditional livelihood it supported.

Eichbaum acknowledged that the state's budget crisis makes boosting spending unlikely, but he said progress could be made even with small investments.

Douglas Legum, a member of the oyster commission and a developer, said that while panel members want to help watermen adapt, failure to restore oysters in the bay could have devastating ecological and economic consequences. The bay's deterioration could worsen, he said, and that could affect tourism, real estate values and the attractiveness of the state to new businesses. "We could become the land of unpleasant living," he said.

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