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Chesapeake Bay oysters: Time to talk moratorium

Tal Petty, owner of Hollywood Oyster Company, says that oyster farms and sanctuaries were adversely affected by heavy rains which diluted the amount of salt in the water - an ingredient necessary for oysters to thrive. (Barbara Hoddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)

In 1985, Maryland did something that had previously been considered unthinkable. It closed state waters to the harvest of rockfish, more widely known as striped bass. Then-Gov. Harry Hughes was denounced for putting commercial fishermen and charter boat operators out of business. But he and his Department of Natural Resources held firm. Striped bass landings had fallen so far — from more than 5 million pounds a year to less than 400,000 pounds — that officials believed the species might not remain viable if such a drastic step was not taken.

Lawmakers are weighing oyster issues like management, sanctuaries, substrate and aquaculture this session, with a bill that could allow homeowners to reject leases in front of their homes.

What happened next? Within three years, the moratorium was lifted. The population bounced back, and spawning success wasn’t cut short by hooks or gill nets. And while there are still issues with Chesapeake Bay rockfish and concerns about its future, landings remain around 1.3 million pounds per year. Fisheries managers proudly point to that difficult choice, as well as the strict management plans that followed, as the bay’s greatest success story.

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That lesson ought to be kept in mind as the Hogan administration — and perhaps the General Assembly — turn their attention to another native species that is facing similar challenges from pollution, loss of habitat and overfishing: the Chesapeake Bay’s eastern oyster. Like rockfish, they were once abundant, and their decline has been even more dramatic. At one time, watermen pulled as many as 20 million bushels of oysters out of the bay. Last year, Maryland waters produced just over 100,000 bushels, and it’s expected to be no better this year.

Even more alarmingly, oysters haven’t had a notable spat set — meaning an abundance of larvae developing into juvenile oysters — since 2012. And while recent spat sets that have been average, at best, are driven as much by temperature, salinity and wind as they are by factors within human control, the loss of breeding stock is alarming. The risk of over-harvesting in any given year is high. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, more than half of Maryland’s wild oyster beds are currently over-harvested.

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Maryland must get more aggressive in attacking sources of pollution that are destroying the nation's largest estuary.

Unfortunately, instead of looking for additional ways to protect the dwindling oyster supply — or even developing a robust plan to manage oysters — the state has taken a haphazard approach of supporting sanctuary reefs, shell planting, aquaculture, oyster hatcheries and other means to augment wild stocks without reducing the fishing pressure sufficiently. The danger is that Maryland is inching toward what some derisively call a “put-and-take” approach where taxpayers pay to stock baby oysters only to have them removed from state waters by watermen. In essence, it’s a way of underwriting a relatively few harvesters without actually restoring anything.

Meanwhile, watermen are still feeling the pinch of oyster losses financially, and their resentment toward aquaculture operators who farm oysters in privately-leased areas from spat to adult is growing. In St. Mary’s County, for example, local authorities recently used their zoning authority to place a moratorium on the use of commercial docks by aquaculture operators. They could not regulate oyster farming directly (that’s a state function), but county commissioners could prevent the operators from landing aquaculture oysters.

Granted, the biology of rockfish and oysters differ, but it’s difficult to understand why Gov. Larry Hogan hasn’t expressed greater alarm over the oyster’s plight. Oysters aren’t just a pleasant snack on the half-shell or a source of income for crabbers in the winter months, they are natural filter feeders that can reduce excess nutrients, sediments and even some chemical contaminants from the water. One oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons in a single day. Maryland doesn’t need an oyster harvest as much as it needs a return of plentiful stocks of oysters in the habitat. Scientists estimate there are just 300 million adult oysters left in Maryland waters — or 10 percent of what Marylanders used to take out of state waters in just one year.

We appreciate the pain the loss of oysters has inflicted on watermen and their communities, particularly on the Eastern Shore, over the years. But the path Maryland is going down right now appears to be unsustainable. An oyster moratorium would certainly be painful — just as it was for rockfish three decades ago — but it deserves serious consideration. The state can’t afford to sink millions of dollars more into a fishery that benefits a relative few, but it can be justified as part of the broader Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.

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