Saving Maryland Oysters

May 18, 1991

What is to be done about Maryland's battered oyster industry? Disease and overfishing have devastated annual harvests. Now comes the distressing news that state funding for one of the business' best hopes for resuscitation -- impregnating river beds with shells bearing baby oysters -- will be slashed from $4 million to $650,000 next year. This means that a program widely credited with propping up Maryland's sagging oyster business will be forced to limp along at half speed. There will be money enough to plant shells on productive seed beds, but precious little to pay for spreading shells on natural oyster bars.

Like many state initiatives, the oyster program is caught between short-term priorities and long-term imperatives. Seeding man-made beds guarantees near-term harvests. But the industry's long-term vigor turns on rebuilding natural oyster bars, a critical link in the Chesapeake Bay's daisy chain of oyster production, food supply and water filtration. Abandoning this crucial effort would almost certainly nail shut the coffin of a sorely depleted oyster industry. Even now, some marine scientists are calling the situation desperate and pushing for a moratorium on harvests. While this would undoubtedly be of some value, it stops short of addressing the industry's structural supply problems.

Given the prevailing budget environment in the states and in Washington, there is a strong case to be made for a regional, cooperative approach to saving Maryland's oyster industry. A raft of federal and state agencies -- including the Maryland Department of Transportation, Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency -- have a direct and pressing interest in water quality and habitat restoration issues. One clear example of the potential of such cooperation has to do with the pressing need to rebuild natural breeding bars. The transportation department needs to rid itself of material dredged from shipping channels that could be used to elevate these reefs.

The financial challenge of the moment calls for innovative approaches to a problem that, if left unchecked, promises to get worse.

Maryland watermen are doing their part by supporting $1 million in proposed new taxes that would help pay for the state's oyster program. This includes a $300 user surcharge that oystermen would have to shell out on top of their regular license fee, as well as higher harvest and out-of-state inspection taxes. That those who make their living on the bay are willing to shoulder part of the burden is a heartening sign. The challenge now falls to federal and state agencies to work together to preserve and strengthen one of Maryland's signature water industries.

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