Ban on oyster sanctuary harvests becomes law without Hogan's signature

A plan that Gov. Larry Hogan's administration had been considering to give watermen periodic access to oyster sanctuaries is dead in the water now that a recently passed bill has become law without Hogan's signature.

The measure bars harvesting within protected oyster bars until a thorough survey of the bivalve population is completed next year.

It is among 15 bills lawmakers sent to the Republican governor last week that he declined to veto or sign, allowing them to become law. The oyster bill passed both chambers of the General Assembly by veto-proof margins.

Environmentalists thanked legislative leaders for their "overwhelming support" of the bill.

"The legislature reaffirmed that Maryland should be cautious in any changes to oyster management," Alison Prost, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Maryland executive director, said in a statement. "We have so few oysters left, we can't randomly increase harvesting, especially on sanctuaries."

Spokespeople for Hogan and for Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton declined to comment on the bill becoming law.

Belton previously criticized lawmakers for upending the ongoing work of a state oyster commission, showing "a disdain of the commission's progress and for science itself."

The commission, whose members include watermen, environmentalists and scientists, had been considering a draft proposal that would have allowed periodic harvesting in some oyster sanctuaries.

Watermen had hoped for at least some flexibility in those boundaries, asking the administration for "rotational" harvesting that would give them access to some sanctuaries for a short period every few years. Many other members of the state commission were open to considering such changes, depending on the scientific analysis of the proposal.

Most of the state's 8,600 acres of sanctuaries have been protected from harvest pressures since 2010 to help rebuild the population from historic lows. The number of oysters in the bay is believed to be at less than 1 percent of pre-Colonial levels because of disease and overfishing.

Last year, lawmakers ordered up what is known as a stock assessment of the oyster population. Such a detailed survey has previously been taken of Maryland's rockfish and blue crab populations, but never oysters.

With that work ongoing, Democratic lawmakers said they felt the need to step in and block any changes to oyster sanctuary policy by the Republican administration. The Democratic majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly easily passed the legislation by mostly party-line votes.

The oyster commission is set to reconvene April 17, with one of its major pieces of business now moot.

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