Overfishing not to blame for oyster woes

No one is denying that the oyster population has decreased dramatically over the last 100 years, and no one is denying that the oyster population needs help, especially the watermen ("An oyster plan Maryland needs," April 8). To lay the blame for the lack of oysters on over-fishing by the watermen is irresponsible. The government is under pressure to do something about the oyster population and as usual they pick on the people that can least afford to fight them. That way, they can say they've done something about the problem, but the real causes and problems still exist.

We all know that MSX and Dermo diseases took a devastating toll on the Chesapeake Bay oyster population. Did the watermen cause that? We all know that silt is drowning the oyster bed. Did the watermen cause that? We all know that the sewage and chemicals are causing dead zones and horrible water quality in the bay, did the waterman cause that? The answer is a resounding no, but does the government go after the developers, the farmers, the towns and property owners with defunct septic systems? No, because it all boils down to money.

It's harder to go after the developers because they have the money to fight the changes that have been proposed. Time and time again, bills get significantly weakened or tossed out all together. The farmers take a lot of flack about their runoff, but little is done to prevent it. What happened to "Critical Areas" and the "buffer" around the bay? Certainly, these laws should have helped the situation. Well people, they're not enforced. Most applications to build in designated critical areas go through without a hitch, a staggering 75 percent or more. So we have to ask ourselves, why all this focus on the few watermen that still harvest oysters? Challenge yourself and dig below the surface, don't take things at face value.

The Department of Natural Resources keeps bringing up the advisory panel of scientists, environmentalists, seafood industry representatives, economists, legislators and watermen. Their Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development plan is based on the recommendations of this panel. They keep saying these decisions are based on sound science. If this is so, then where is the science and laws being developed to limit overdevelopment in the bay watershed, the enforcement of buffer areas, and money to help cities update their sewage systems? The problems of the bay are many and not easily addressed. To focus any part of the blame for the bay's condition on watermen without addressing and doing something about the real concerns is not sound science. It's more of a campaign designed to get the public's eyes off the real pressing problems.

The watermen are not against sanctuaries, aquaculture or what is being referred to as the "poachers" bill. What they are against is how the Department of Natural Resources has handled this new plan. They feel it's being jammed down their throats without any substantial or meaningful input from the men and women who make the bay their life. The sanctuaries chosen are disproportionately grouped on the Eastern Shore. Most watermen welcome the increased law enforcement. They've been asking for it for years, and it's fallen on deaf ears. Now that the state has a new plan they want to put in effect, we're starting to see some action. Increased enforcement has brought to light that there is poaching going on. No big news, but it has taken on a very vocal and derogatory spin that ends up looking like all watermen are to blame for a few bad apples. Not all watermen poach.

Watermen have been doing aquaculture on their leased bottoms with little or no success for many years. To make aquaculture feasible in the bay, the oysters will have to be lifted off the bottom in floats so that they don't get silted over. Where are the existing plans and money that will help Maryland watermen to move into this type of industry? This is no minor ordeal. To say that they're available, but with no concrete information or assistance in place, and pushing this plan through immediately is negligent on their part.

Watermen do not have the thousands of dollars sitting around in their savings accounts to start up an operation and keep it going for three years until they see legal size oysters that they can sell at market. It is not even a sure thing that they will live long enough to sell. So where is the science on that? Just because other states and other countries have made it work doesn't mean it fits here. How long did it take them to establish viable aquaculture leases? It's doubtful it was done in one year or even five years.

There are so many questions to be answered about the aquaculture issue and they need to be answered before Maryland DNR starts leasing out bottom for aquaculture. Are the leases going to be offered to Maryland watermen first, before the large companies with the big bucks come in? Are they going to allow out of state companies, out of country companies? Only when these questions have been answered satisfactorily will we have a true picture of what this "plan" really entails. This plan and this attitude from DNR assure only one thing and that's the obsolescence of the Maryland watermen.

So dig deep and think hard. Are we willing to give up our history and permanently put the Maryland waterman out of work and forever change the face of the bay? Could a well thought out compromise on sanctuary grounds accomplish the same thing without putting additional hardship on the few watermen that are left who are desperately trying to make a living? Can we forego the political posturing and heavy-handedness, and work together? Should we address the more pressing negative impacts on the bay like sewage systems, chemicals and silt? It's a no-brainer. Let's stop with the band-aids and perform the operation

Bunky Chance, Neavitt

The writer is president of the Talbot County Watermen's Association.


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