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Leave oyster laws alone

The Chesapeake oystering industry is on the rebound. Why is the legislature trying to change the rules?

Maryland is spending millions to try to restore the oysters of the Chesapeake Bay, a bivalve of untold gustatory, economic, cultural and ecological significance. The state has carved out large underwater sanctuaries and seeded them with shells and oyster spat. It has invested more in high-tech means to catch those who would break the rules and stiffened penalties for poaching. By all indications, it's working.

The number of bushels of oysters harvested in Maryland during the last five years has quadrupled. Oystering, once considered a dying way of life, has been revitalized so much that the number of licenses Maryland has issued has nearly doubled during that time.

It's curious, then, that the General Assembly is on the verge of stripping away one of the crucial tools the state has used to engineer this turnaround. In 2011, lawmakers enacted tough new penalties for those caught poaching oysters. Watermen could lose their licenses permanently if they were caught taking oysters in a prohibited area, using the wrong kind of gear or taking them out of season, among other offenses. As The Sun's Catherine Rentz and Timothy B. Wheeler reported Sunday the result has been a more than five-fold increase in the number of license revocations and suspensions during a period when the overall number of violations Department of Natural Resources Police found dropped by 40 percent. The clear implication is that the state's willingness to mete out tough penalties is helping to keep the industry in line overall.

But both the House and Senate have passed versions of legislation that would gut the 2011 law. Rather than calling for a revocation of the license of a waterman who knowingly takes oysters at the wrong time, in a restricted place or with the wrong equipment, it calls for a one-year suspension, so long as the offender has not been convicted of a violation of fisheries laws during the previous five years. The proposal also narrows the provision related to the use of prohibited equipment, limiting its application to the use of a power dredge in an area reserved for other gear. The Senate's version passed 46-0 and received preliminary approval, with amendments, in the House today. The amendments put it in line with a House version, which allows for license revocation if a violation is deemed to be "egregious." That bill passed 140-0 and sits now in a Senate committee.

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, the chief sponsor of the 2011 legislation, learned about this year's bill from the article by Ms. Rentz and Mr. Wheeler and is now seeking to stop it before it becomes law. Before the 2011 act, he said, oyster poaching wasn't treated as a serious crime — fines averaged $179, according to research from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, not nearly enough to overcome the incentive to poach oysters in the sanctuaries that have been well stocked at taxpayer expense. And even the loss of a license may not do the trick. As Ms. Rentz and Mr. Wheeler documented, some who were banned from taking oysters in Maryland have simply shifted operations to Virginia. Without the possibility that the state will revoke a license, Mr. Frosh says, there is simply no way for the state to protect its investment in oyster restoration or to achieve its goal of increasing the oyster population from 1 percent of historic stocks to 8 percent.

The theory behind Maryland's oyster sanctuaries is that if state conservation officials can establish flourishing populations there, those reefs can help fertilize others with oysters that are more resistant to disease. The state has spent $30 million on that effort in the Harris Creek Sanctuary alone. Former Gov. Martin O'Malley said the policy was necessary to restore the bay's oyster population, and in 2010 he more than doubled the acreage that is off-limits to oystering, up to 25 percent of the bay's oyster habitat. Oystermen said at the time that the regulations would kill the industry, and some still complain that the state's rules give them no choice but to poach.

That's nonsense. The oyster catch is up, more people are plying the trade, and fewer of them are getting caught violating the rules despite what is arguably the world's most sophisticated monitoring system. The plan is working. Why would the General Assembly want to change it now? Mr. Frosh is right. This legislation should die a quiet death in Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Joan Carter Conway's desk drawer.

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