The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has modified the controversial stand it took a month ago when it called for a three-year ban on oystering.
While maintaining that they still believe in the moratorium, officials of the environmental group suggested five measures to bring back a species ravaged by disease, pollution and, some believe, overfishing.
And in an announcement yesterday, they challenged anyone to come up with a way to protect the reproductive stock of adult oysters to build the population above the level of near commercial extinction that exists today.
The foundation, whose proposal for a ban infuriated watermen and was quickly rejected by state officials, recommended a stronger promotion of aquaculture, a major program to rebuild natural reefs or bars where the hard-shelled creatures live and sanctuary areas for those bars that are no longer worked on.
The bay foundation also advocated setting a goal of restoring the oyster population to one-third of its 1870 size and a federal research effort to solve the problem of disease.
"We are realistic in assessing the socio-economic factors that were brought up in considering a moratorium," said William Goldsborough, fisheries biologist with the bay foundation.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials said they already have begun some of the programs the bay foundation recommends.This year, the DNR sold 22,000 bushels of seed oysters to be used by private companies in growing oysters on acres of bay bottom leased to them by the state.
Other recommendations are not realistic, said Peter Jensen, director of the Fisheries Division of DNR. For instance, he said, bringing the oyster population back by doubling its population every six years would be difficult considering that about half of the historic oyster bars have disappeared over the years.
"We are not sure the goal does anything for us," he said, while acknowledging that a major effort is needed to rebuild natural oyster beds.
Declining slowly over the past decade, the oyster population is believed to be about 1 percent of its original level. The result has been reduced harvests and strained economies for several small fishing villages around the bay.