Oyster ProblemsIn a recent Opinion*Commentary article...


March 20, 1993

Oyster Problems

In a recent Opinion*Commentary article, Frank Gray asserted that the decline of the oyster industry is due to the failure of the state to encourage private oyster culture and that the industry could be revived if private leasing of the public beds were allowed. He also stated that little is done to permit leasing in Maryland.

Without question, private leasing has had a difficult history in Maryland. There has always been opposition from watermen to the idea of relinquishing public oyster bars to private citizens for personal gain because they feared large corporations controlling the leases.

In spite of this history, however, Maryland has developed an active leasing program. Numerous laws and regulations, in existence for decades, permit leasing of the bay bottom for oyster culture by any state resident.

The leaseholder can lease up to 30 acres in tributaries and 500 acres in the main bay if the bottom meets certain criteria, primarily that it is not a natural oyster or clam bar. In other words, it must be barren bottom.

This is the bottom that Mr. Gray believes is now inaccessible to leaseholders. In fact, this is the very bottom that is available for leasing.

Some counties have prohibitions on the issue of new leases, but previously leased bottom can be transferred to a new leaseholder. The rent to hold a lease is only $3.50 per acre per year and the lease is good for 20 years. Currently there are just under 1,000 leases totaling about 10,000 leased acres.

We actively encourage leasing by providing seed oysters for sale to leaseholders at cost, at a price that is far below the market price for seed oysters imported from out-of-state hatcheries . . .

Though Maryland has these programs, production from private grounds is minimal to non-existent now, compared to previous times.

The single most significant impediment to private production is the presence of two oyster parasites (MSX and dermo). They can wipe out the population on a bar, eliminating any chance for the planter to make a profit . . .

Private growers in West River, Nanticoke River and Magothy River, historically active lease areas, have reported extensive losses to disease. Investments in seed oysters ranging from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars have been lost.

No private grower can afford such losses. This is why of the 1,000 leases, less than half a dozen are being planted now. Private oyster production is at a standstill due to MSX and dermo, not because the state has discouraged leasing.

As a result, private oyster culture offers little in the way of a solution to the problems of the industry in Maryland . . .

The promise of a $100 million private culture industry is unrealistic and the accusation that the state is impeding this is false. Just the opposite is true. The state does not require payment of lease rents where oyster diseases prevent production . . .

The key driving force behind the decline of Maryland's public oyster harvest is also disease mortality . . .

Mortality rates of 50 percent and greater have crippled the production capacity of key harvest areas . . . Outbreaks of the early 1980s reduced harvests from an average of 2.4 million bushels to about 1.1 million bushels. The outbreaks during the summers of 1986 and 1987 were equally dramatic. Harvest fell from a strong 1.5 million bushels to only 363,259 bushels two seasons later. The average harvest since has been about 380,000 bushels per year.

During these periods oyster reproduction was generally very successful, particularly in the diseased areas. If not for MSX and dermo, harvests should have remained between 1 and 2 million bushels and would likely be there today.

MSX or dermo can be found on most of Maryland's oyster bars, public and private. There is no known cure . . . It is significant that Maryland's public fishery has maintained a harvest (although reduced from historic levels), while neighboring states that relied on private harvests have not maintained a harvest.

W. P. Jensen


The writer is Maryland director of fisheries.

We should expect and welcome a vigorous debate over the social and ethical issues involved in Norplant being offered to teen-agers. In the heat of debate, however, unnecessary concern has been created by misinformation and rumors on its medical and health aspects.

The Population Council developed the science and technology of Norplant, conducted the clinical trials and analyzed the data that led to Food and Drug Administration approval.

We developed Norplant to expand the choice of contraceptives available to women. This method contains the same hormone that has been used for decades in widely distributed oral contraceptives in this country. The difference with Norplant is that the dosage of hormone is lower than the pill's, the method contains no estrogen, and the drug is slowly released from the capsules over years, rather than swallowed daily. Our studies of this kind of estrogen implant contraception began in 1966.

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