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Save the oyster

Why not give Maryland oysters a chance to rebound?

As massive as it is at more than 900 pages, the latest report on Chesapeake Bay oyster management by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources can be distilled to one major finding — sanctuaries work. The dozens of oyster beds permanently closed to harvest but targeted for restoration efforts are showing signs of paying off.

Reviewing five years of data, DNR scientists and a handful of outside experts have concluded that oysters are thriving in sanctuaries and not doing nearly as well in areas where the bivalve is still harvested. That should have been something of a no-brainer — leave most animals undisturbed in their native habitat and they'll outperform their commercially harvested neighbors — but in the contentious business of regulating oysters it was far from a given.

Earlier this year, watermen succeeded in convincing the state to halt construction of new oyster reefs in the Tred Avon River on the grounds that the strategy was ineffective. That was an unfortunate decision given the state of the much-loved bivalve in the bay, which, despite good reproductive "spat sets" in 2010 and 2012, remains near historic lows. But at least Hogan administration officials promised to review the scientific evidence before deciding what to do next. Shortly after the report was released Monday night, the DNR's 23-member Oyster Advisory Commission recommended that the Tred Avon project move forward, welcome news that represented an agreement on the issue among environmentalists, watermen and other stakeholders.

While scientists, including those who worked on the latest DNR survey, admit that it's still too early to fully judge the impact of sanctuaries, the state should always be erring on the side of conservation. Oysters are more than just a lucrative harvest destined for local restaurants and raw bars, they are filter feeders whose very presence improves water clarity, reduces excess nutrients and provides habitat for a variety of marine life.

Efforts to create oyster sanctuaries have often been unfairly maligned by watermen who clearly worry that unprotected oyster beds will be shortchanged by the state, particularly when it comes to spreading hatchery-born spat. Many obviously resent the notion that taxpayer dollars are used to help nurture oysters that they will never see — or profit from — ignoring the fact that successful oyster reproduction in a sanctuary means more oyster larvae on nearby wild beds as well.

Yet there is also language in the DNR report that gives pause — including an observation that some sanctuaries should be converted into harvest areas to provide "economic and cultural benefits" to fishing communities. The logic of this isn't readily apparent: If sanctuaries are successful, then why should they be sacrificed? If not enough is known about them, then why should they be opened to commercial harvest? If the ecological function of oysters is valuable, why remove more of them from the Chesapeake Bay?

Gov. Larry Hogan's desire to help rural towns on the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland is commendable but not at the expense of saving the Chesapeake's depleted oyster population. If anything, the DNR study's findings ought to encourage a cautious approach given the uncertainties involved. Pollution, loss of habitat, the diseases MSX and Dermo and overharvesting have all been factors in the decline of the oyster. This is a complex biological system affected by, among other things, salinity levels, water temperatures, prevailing currents during the spawning season and, of course, climate change. Thus, oysters can have a great spat set on a Choptank River tributary in the same year that they have a poor one in the lower Potomac River or vice versa.

What Maryland doesn't need — and what a fiscally conservative governor should be careful to avoid — is to allow oysters to become a "put and take" industry where the state produces the "seed" oysters and the shell for them to grow on, hires watermen to spread the young on oyster beds and then allows those same watermen to harvest them a year or two later when they are fully mature. That's not really reviving the species or saving a livelihood, it's more akin to creating a limited number of state-subsidized make-work jobs.

If anything, what the DNR, its oyster advisory group and Governor Hogan ought to be pushing for is more oyster sanctuaries and more sustainable aquaculture (with watermen tending to their privately-owned "crops" of oysters) to reduce pressure on native stocks. Both are proven strategies and offer the greatest, most cost-effective benefit not only to the restoration of oysters but to the future health of the Chesapeake Bay.

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