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Maryland House votes to override Gov. Hogan's veto of bill that would bar oyster harvesting in 5 sanctuaries

Maryland’s House of Delegates voted Friday to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill that would permanently bar oyster harvesting in five waterways targeted for restoration of the distressed species.

The delegates voted 96-43 to support House Speaker Michael Busch’s legislation, which environmental groups say is needed to prevent the dwindling oyster population from dying out. The bill blocks harvesting in five of 51 of the state’s oyster sanctuaries.

The House sent the bill to the Senate for an override vote; that chamber previously approved the legislation with a veto-proof margin. The Senate planned to vote Monday and Democratic leaders said they would override the veto.

Before Firday’s vote, Del. Kumar Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, urged his House colleagues to vote for the override, arguing the five sanctuaries are vital to the health of species.

“If they fail … the other 46 sanctuaries and the entire Chesapeake Bay will be in jeopardy,” Barve said.

Watermen say their industry is hindered by too much regulation, and they aren’t to blame for declines in the oyster fishery. They argue the bill will endanger the jobs of hundreds of watermen who wouldn’t be allowed to harvest the oysters.

In his decision Thursday night to veto the bill, Hogan, a Republican, cited pleas from watermen that it would deliver “a crushing blow” to the state’s seafood industry.

“This bill is bad policy, is bad for our watermen — and worst of all — is bad for the Chesapeake Bay,” the governor wrote in a veto letter.

Del. Kathy Szeliga, the Baltimore County Republican who is the House minority whip, urged her colleagues to listen to representatives from the Eastern Shore who describe the bill as a job-killer and say the Chesapeake Bay can be protected through other means.

“Who cares about the Chesapeake Bay more than the people who live there?” Szeliga said. “These are the very people who are standing on this floor telling you to support the governor’s veto.”

Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, called the governor’s decision “unfortunate,” and counter to Hogan’s recent calls for Congress to increase spending on the federal Chesapeake Bay Program.

“As Governor Hogan loudly lobbies for federal Chesapeake Bay funds, he quietly vetoed legislation that is critical to the health of the bay,” Busch said in a statement.

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At issue are five Chesapeake tributaries where millions of dollars of federal and state money has been spent to build artificial oyster reefs and seed them with lab-grown larvae. They are Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River, the Tred Avon River, the St. Mary's River and the Manokin River.

Federal law bars harvesting from the first three of those waterways, where federal money has been spent on restoration work.

But, amid complaints from watermen, the Hogan administration has chosen to forgo such federal funding in recent years. That has left open the option that sanctuaries in the St. Mary’s and Manokin rivers could one day be opened for harvesting.

James T. Mullin, director of the Maryland Oystermen Association, said in a statement that Busch’s legislation “was rammed through without any input or the courtesy extended to the men and women who work in the state's seafood industry as to how this would affect our industry, the bay proper communities, culture and way of life."

The Chesapeake oyster population is at less than 1 percent of the levels scientists say were present before European colonists arrived. A recently completed and long-awaited study found there are 300 million market-sized oysters in the bay, half as many as in 1999.

Environmentalists and scientists say the sanctuaries must be protected to help the oyster population recover.

Earlier Friday morning, longtime University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science President Donald Boesch posted a Twitter thread urging lawmakers to override the veto.

Boesch, who retired from his role leading the center in 2017 but is still a professor there, criticized arguments from watermen that dredging and harvesting will help oyster bars thrive.

“Periodic dredging of restored oyster reefs will only destroy these reefs, not increase oysters,” Boesch wrote. “That debate was settled many decades ago.”

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