Annapolis -- Watermen understand best of all the importance of oysters and oyster reefs to the health and productivity of the Chesapeake Bay. They also know that oyster bars must be continually worked to keep them productive.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's proposed oyster moratorium and five-point plan to revitalize the industry is that Bay Foundation's staff and scientists did not consult the Maryland Watermen's Association when making their assessment. Neither did they address what we have done for the industry.
In light of that, I'd like to take the opportunity here to point out what the watermen have been doing during the last four years when the oyster population was decimated by the oyster parasites MSX and Dermo. It's important to keep in mind that it was the parasites, not over-harvesting, that killed off 90 percent of the bay's oysters in the late 1980s. A moratorium will not change that. Instead, it would allow more oysters to die without any benefit to the state or the watermen.
When the threat of MSX and Dermo was first identified, the Oyster White Paper Committee, made up of watermen from around the state, recommended shorter daily harvesting time limits; we reduced the bushel limit from 100 bushels a boat and 30 bushels a man to 30 bushels a boat and 15 bushels a man; cut the season back a month and cut down on the time we harvest on Saturdays.
We review the regulations before, during and after each season. This season, we expect to eliminate oyster harvesting on Saturdays. Until now, we oystered until noon on Saturdays.
Not only have we sought self-imposed restrictions, but we have been and continue to work with Department of Natural Resources officials on planting seed oysters in the best growing areas.
Called the Oyster Repletion Program, watermen under the direction of state biologists move and replant seed oysters from the productive lower bay nursery areas to the better growing areas in the upper bay. The seed program aims to manage around the parasites, which appear to thrive in high-salinity waters, a condition that dominated most of the bay during the droughts of 1987-1989.
Recognizing how important the seed program is to the industry, oystermen aggressively sought an additional $300 surcharge to be added on to the $50 oyster license fee to help fund the program. An estimated $1 million is expected to be raised with the $300 surcharge enacted into law this year.
In the late 1980s, the oysters in the lower bay were completely wiped out by MSX and Dermo. But they had a big hatch there last year. Should those oysters survive, the industry will be out of danger. Imposing a moratorium won't make any difference. The difference depends on the amount of rainfall we get this summer.
Another frustrating aspect of the proposed oyster moratorium is that the Bay Foundation apparently did not take the data collected by the Department of Natural Resources during the last 30 years into account. Since 1939 the department 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. Two of the five best spat sets occurred in the 1980s, in 1980 and 1985.
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, according to state biologists. That means there is not a brood stock problem because enough oysters hatch, but not enough survive. Salinity, water temperature and water quality all play a role in survivability.
The biggest but least understood aspect of survivability is the effect of pollution. We have seen unworked oyster bars become silted over and unproductive. The tiny oyster larvae need clean places to attach themselves to. If beds aren't worked regularly, if watermen aren't constantly turning over the shells on the bed, the shells are buried.
Take the Potomac River as an example. Oyster beds below the outfall of the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant were closed for years until the plant was upgraded. When the water quality improved, the oyster beds were reopened, but there was nothing there.
Instituting sanctuaries and imposing a moratorium would only worsen the problem, not solve it.
When the watermen on the Oyster White Paper Committee recommended harvest restrictions, they knew it would take at least five years to turn the industry around. And these things are working.
One promising sign that the oysters are not only surviving, but actually may be growing tolerant and stronger is that the oysters now look much healthier than they did a few years ago when MSX and Dermo were first taking their toll.