WASHINGTON -- The Chesapeake Bay Foundation called yesterday for a three-year ban on oyster harvesting in the bay, warning that if "the big step" is not taken, oysters may be threatened with commercial extinction.
The foundation proposed banning oyster harvesting starting in September and hiring out-of-work watermen and seafood packers to help rebuild the oyster population, which has declined to only 1 percent of the bay's former bounty.
The oyster harvesting ban was among dozens of far-ranging recommendations and findings contained in a new book, "Turning the Tide, Saving the Chesapeake Bay," released yesterday at a news conference at the Capitol.
The foundation also found that air pollution, mostly from cars, is turning out to be a larger component of the bay's ill health than was suspected just a few years ago.
But it was the oyster moratorium that caused the biggest stir, as industry spokesmen and state environmental officials criticized the idea as jeopardizing the seafood industry.
"Of course we're not in favor of a moratorium," said Betty Duty of the Maryland Watermen's Association, noting that a ban on bluefish was devastating to watermen. "I don't think the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has given a thought about what it would mean to the watermen and the state."
Torrey C. Brown, secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, said his department could declare a moratorium on oyster harvesting by declaring oysters an endangered species.
"But I'm not convinced that they are an endangered species, and I'm not convinced that a ban would work for oysters," Dr. Brown said.
Some 423,000 bushels of oysters were harvested in Maryland last year, valued at $10.1 million at the dock, according to DNR.
Because oysters do not migrate,the state can declare the richest beds off limits to watermen and already has 200,000 acres of sanctuaries, "so there is a ban on oysters in that area," Dr. Brown said.
While the foundation understands that the watermen need oyster harvesting as a winter crop, the significance of oysters goes beyond feeding pocketbooks and appetites, said Tom Horton, one of the authors of "Turning the Tide." Mr. Horton, a member of the foundation staff who was a longtime environmental writer for The Sun, wrote the book with William M. Eichbaum, vice president of the Conservation Foundation.
"The interest we have in oysters is based largely on the ability of the oyster to help the water quality of the bay. Its filtering ability is immense," Mr. Horton said at the press conference. In the 1870s, when the bay held 12 million bushels of oysters, the bivalves could filter the volume of the bay every week, Mr. Horton said. Now, in their depleted state, it takes nearly a year.
Foundation President William C. Baker was uncertain how much money it would take to turn watermen into oyster repletion workers during a three-year harvesting ban, but said the costs should be shared among federal, state and local governments. He estimated there are 1,500 to 2,000 watermen harvesting oysters, although the state Department of Natural Resources placed the number closer to 3,000.
"We have all been hoping that oysters would return without taking tough steps," Mr. Baker said, adding that he does not fault state officials who are charged with tracking oyster harvest for the sharp decline in the population. "I think they're being conservative and now is the time to be bold."
Cecily Majerus, program assistant for Gov. William Donald Schaefer's Chesapeake Bay Program, had no immediate comment on the proposed ban, saying the office was still studying the report.
But Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, said the oyster ban proposal deserves attention. "We need to take a look at it," he said. "Whatever you do in the Chesapeake Bay is going to require trade-offs."
Nearly eight years after Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to restore the health of the bay, the foundation's report finds "no discernible trend toward a system-wide comeback." Improvements have occurred, but they have been spotty, the book says -- a comeback in rockfish and eagles, some improvement in the shad population, less phosphorus pollution and improvements on a few rivers.
Fifteen million people who live in the bay's watershed, which extends as far as New York and West Virginia, "obviously are having too great an impact on the bay because the bay's screwed up," Mr. Horton said. In the next 20 to 30 years, another 3 million people will live in the watershed and measures have to be put in place now so that they will have "zero impact" on the quality of the bay, said the Eastern Shore author.
Among its findings and recommendations, the book, prepared under a grant from the Abell Foundation, said farms must achieve "nutrient balance," so that nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizers that go onto soil must be equaled by what is taken off in farming.