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Environment

Maryland loosens oyster regulations, opens commercial harvesting to five days a week

For the first time since 2018, commercial oyster harvesters will be able to catch and gather the popular mollusks five days a week, according to new regulations from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The department is ending a ban on commercial harvesting on Wednesdays. The new policy will allow commercial harvesting Monday through Friday for the October 2021 through March 2022 season.

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Recreational oyster harvesting also will expand from three days to six days, to Monday through Saturday.

Christopher Judy, the director of the agency’s shellfish division, said the four-day commercial harvesting week was established in 2019 to reduce harvesting and protect oyster populations from overfishing.

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Now that the market-sized oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay is the third highest since 1999, Judy said the department proposed loosening the restriction.

“The oyster population is trending in the right direction,” Judy said. “With these positive outcomes, it’s reasonable to do something minor like add Wednesdays back in. It’s not going to do harm, in other words.”

Spatfall, the population of young oysters, in the bay is also the highest since 1999, but Allison Colden, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she is wary about using these numbers to justify loosening harvesting regulations.

“Even though we have one good year of spatfall, that isn’t going to be the panacea that solves all of our problems,” Colden said.

Colden said the new regulations jeopardize the future of sustainable oyster populations in the bay.

“In fact, this action opens the door for more harvest, which puts any chance of this year’s record spatset contributing to the long-term recovery of oysters at significant risk,” Colden said.

Before DNR’s announcement of the five-day harvest week, the bay foundation had called on the department to maintain the Wednesday harvest ban out of concern for overfishing.

In a statement to the department in June, the foundation emphasized that while the increases in market-sized oysters and spatfall were greatest in the Choptank River and Tangier Sound, those areas were also reported to be overfished in 2020.

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Colden said maintaining a healthy oyster population needs to come before all else.

“They are absolutely fundamental to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem because they are habitat builders,” Colden said.

Oysters also filter nitrogen out of the water in the bay, contributing to water cleanup efforts, on top of being a critical commercial product for the bay’s economy.

“That is why making sure that the levels of oysters and numbers of oysters that are coming out of the bay for harvest are sustainable is important. We need to make sure they are able to fulfill those other roles,” Colden said.

Judy said the addition of Wednesdays is a “minor change,” and that the department is maintaining daily controls limiting the number of bushels that can be harvested.

Bushel limits for commercial harvesting will stay the same as last year with a limit of 12 bushels a day for anyone using hand tongs, 10 bushels a day for those using a power dredge and 100 bushels a day for dredge boats.

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The department will soon run a trial phase of electronic monitoring, a way of tracking and reporting how many oysters are harvested on a given day in a given area — a method supported by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The foundation also advocated for a harvest quota system this season, which would end commercial harvesting once a sustainable number of oysters were pulled from the water.

Judy said the department is looking to the Oyster Advisory Commission, a panel appointed by the DNR secretary to review research and report on strategies to improve the fishery, to discuss the use of harvest quotas for future seasons.

“That’s going to be a discussion into the future,” Judy said.

For now, Judy said he hopes the five-day harvest week will prevent commercial harvesting on days of severe weather and will allow harvesters to set their schedules.

“Eliminating Wednesdays put watermen in a corner,” Judy said.

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Robert Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association and a member of the Oyster Advisory Commission, said he hopes the new schedule will not only increase safety for harvesters, but also improve business.

“It’s good for the industry and it’s good for the oysters,” Brown said. “Mother Nature’s been good to us the past three or four years with young oysters that are coming back. We got limits and a good oyster management plan from Natural Resources.”


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