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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)

Oysters aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Whether served raw on the half-shell, stuffed in a Thanksgiving turkey, fried, frittered, baked in a pie or dropped in a stew, oysters can taste a bit like the ocean with a slight hint of iron combined with the texture of an egg white. But you don’t have to be Diamond Jim Brady, the Gilded Age financier who often ate a few dozen at a time, to appreciate their importance to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. As filter feeders, oysters are the proverbial vacuum cleaners for the nation’s biggest estuary, taking in large quantities of water (a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons a day) and removing algae and other organic material that can pollute the bay.

That’s why the massive decline in oysters in the Chesapeake should be of great concern beyond the relatively modest number of watermen who still harvest them or the seafood dealers who sell them. Today, the oyster population is at roughly 1 percent of historic levels. And few experts expect the species to bounce back to its bountiful past anytime soon. The last notable year for oyster reproduction was in 2012. That doesn’t make them endangered exactly (there are still hundreds of millions of adult oysters), but it does raise grave concerns about their long-term viability.

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The Maryland General Assembly has passed a bill to permanently protect five oyster sanctuaries in the law.

Last month, the General Assembly took a modest step toward improving those odds by passing House Bill 298 which would permanently ban the harvesting of oysters in five sanctuaries scattered around the Chesapeake — four on the Eastern Shore and one in Southern Maryland. That protection is absolutely necessary if the state is to preserve its already significant taxpayer investment in the sanctuaries. The fear is that overfishing of oysters, a problem in more than half of existing reefs, according to a 2018 stock assessment, could ultimately jeopardize oyster restoration efforts.

This is hardly some outlandish idea. The sanctuaries have existed for most of a decade, and the multi-state Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement anticipates both Maryland and Virginia to have constructed and seeded them in five rivers by 2025. Combined, Maryland’s oyster sanctuaries (along with areas designated for aquaculture or oyster farming) represent no more than about one-quarter of productive oyster bottom in state waters. That leaves three-quarters for watermen to harvest.

We urge Gov. Larry Hogan to sign the bill. It dovetails nicely with the governor’s stated goal of restoring the Chesapeake Bay and ensuring that watermen will have a livelihood. Protected sanctuaries not only benefit the tributaries where they are located, but oyster larvae can drift great distances which means successful reproduction in places like Harris Creek or the Little Choptank River in Talbot and Dorchester counties, respectively, could also help increase natural numbers of oysters in places like the nearby Lower Choptank River or Tangier Sound.

As a full-time waterman in St. Mary’s County, I am one of those most affected by the neglect of the Chesapeake Bay.  I have a retail crab shack and a small processing operation where I sell my catch of oysters, crabs and fish to survive.  I am part of an endangered species.

Still, some watermen have opposed the bill on the grounds that they would like to see control of the sanctuaries kept in the hands of the Oyster Advisory Commission on which watermen, seafood industry officials and politicians representing their districts have controlling votes. That has raised concerns that Governor Hogan may see a veto of the legislation as a sop to an industry that is hurting and to a region of the state where he is quite popular (having captured the Eastern Shore by a 3-to-1 margin in the 2018 election he won statewide with 55 percent of the vote). Sadly, that would be a huge mistake.

Not that watermen are undeserving of some sympathy — disease, habitat loss and pollution having been factors in the oyster’s decline well beyond their control — but failing to adequately protect oysters dooms their livelihood and perhaps their ability to harvest other species, too. Oysters are such a keystone organism, both through water filtration and by providing reefs that offer habitat to other creatures, that any deeper loss could prove devastating. That’s why lawmakers might very well have gone a step further and proposed a moratorium on all commercial harvesting of oysters, a policy watermen would surely find more repugnant. That makes this measure, championed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a reasonable compromise, a way to protect Maryland’s long-term investment in the existing oyster sanctuaries and help preserve the watermen’s way of life for years in the future.

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