Spare The Oyster Moratorium -- Save The Chesapeake

July 03, 1991|By Larry Simms

This is in response to a recently issued Chesapeake Bay Foundation state of the bay report, "Turning the Tide."

The Maryland Watermen's Association has taken a strong position against a proposed three-year moratorium on oyster harvesting.

The last thing the seafood industry needs is an oyster moratorium. Older watermen who have worked on the waterall their lives have seen oysters, as well as rockfish, come and go. During the last two years, watermen have reported an abundance of small oysters in the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay.

Shutting down the watermen for three years is as impractical as shutting down the farmers, the sewage treatment plants and the industries that pollute the bay.

During the Oyster White Paper Committee meeting that took place the same night as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's call for a moratorium, Jackie Russell,a St. Mary's County waterman and member of the Potomac River FisheriesCommission, summed up the feelings of many watermen: "I look at this with a controlled type of rage. We know a moratorium will kill the watermen and the packing industry."

Emotions aside, CBF stands alone in its call for an oyster moratorium. State biologists and the governor's committee reviewing the state's role in the oyster industry considered but rejected the idea of an oyster moratorium.

Throughout the last decade, the state Department of Natural Resources has not seen a need for an oyster moratorium. According to W. Peter Jensen, director of fisheries for DNR, there is no brood stock problem. It's adisease problem, and DNR is managing around it.

Two of the five best spat sets occurred in 1980 and 1985. Since 1939, the DNR has conducted its annual fall oyster survey, which tracks the spatfall, or amount of oyster larvae that set or attach themselves to cultch, usually old oyster shells.

Results of the survey during the 1980s indicate oysters were spawning in large enough numbers to sustain the traditional 1 million to 2 million bushel annual harvest, Roy Scott, a DNRshellfish biologist, told the whitepaper committee.

The annual harvest dropped to a record low of 360,000 bushels in 1986 and has remained around 400,000 bushels. Last season, the harvest was slightly higher, with 420,000 bushels. The 1990-1991 harvest would have been greater had there been more of a market for oysters after Christmas, industry leaders said.

With plenty of rainfall this summer, watermen and state biologists expect the harvest to be even better this season. Oysters, however, appear to be less resistant to MSX and Dermo whenthe salinity is high. The oysters also look much healthier than theydid a few years ago when MSX and Dermo were first taking their toll.

The governor's committee, reviewing the state's role in the oyster industry, reached similar conclusions. Unlike the CBF report, the governor's committee conducted a comprehensive investigation of Maryland's oyster industry last year.

The Wolman Committee, named after chairman M. Gordon Wolman of the Johns Hopkins University, concluded that amoratorium would not address the problem.

"The consensus wasthat a moratorium would serve no real purpose," said Delegate John F. Slade III, D-St. Mary's County and member of the committee.

The committee recommended steps to enhance both the public and private oyster industries, including:

* Increasing the share of the cost of the Oyster Repletion Program with the oystermen.

* Reviewing the legal and regulatory framework to make management more flexible and make aquaculture more practical.

* Developing more and larger seed sanctuaries on both public and private oyster bars.

Some of those recommendations, submitted to the governor in September, have already been acted upon.

The watermen have been actively participating in the management of the fishery. They recognize the oystermen's need tomake a greater investment in the Oyster Repletion Program,which includes planting shells for oyster larvae to attach to and then moving the seed oysters to better growing areas where they are then harvested.

The oyster committee, the industry's advisory board, and the Maryland Watermen's Association supported legislation that imposed a $300 surcharge to the $50 oyster license fee.

The oyster committee met June 12, just several hours after CBF called for a moratorium. Members of the committee disagreed with CBF's position, saying the strategies already in place were working but needed more time.

It is ironic that we have watermen and Chesapeake Bay skipjacks on everything from postage stamps to tote bags, television specials and state promotional programs. But the watermen are blamed for over-harvesting and depleting the bay's resources when the real problems range from development runoff to inadequate sewage treatment plants.

Editor's note: Larry Simns is president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

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