State officials began an effort yesterday to forge a consensus on how to deal with the oyster crisis in Chesapeake Bay.
Natural resources officials met behind closed doors with watermen, scientists, legislators, environmentalists, oyster growers and packers in a bid to break the political logjam over how to revive the shellfish industry.
More than 30 people from both shores of the bay attended the all-day "roundtable" talks, arranged by the Department of Natural Resources and held at a yacht club near Annapolis.
It was the first in a series of brainstorming sessions being held over the next two months. The goal of the meetings, run by a hired mediator from Washington, is to find some common ground.
"It's not going to be easy," said Dr. Donald F. Boesch, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Estuarine and Environmental Studies.
For years, environmentalists, fisheries managers, scientists and watermen have been at odds over what ails the bay's oysters -- and what to do about it.
"Some of the parties have been at this a long time, and their positions and relationships have been a bit hardened," Dr. Boesch said.
The industry suffered through its worst oyster season ever last fall and winter. With shellfish beds ravaged by two parasitic diseases the past five years, only 120,000 bushels were landed last season, just a fraction of harvests a decade ago. The diseases, MSX and Dermo, have "ended oystering as we know it, in 80 to 85 percent of the bay," said W. Peter Jensen, DNR's fisheries director.
Over-harvesting, destruction of oyster reefs and water pollution also have whittled away at shellfish stocks during the past century.
"Nothing is out of bounds for discussion," said Mr. Jensen, alluding to such controversial proposals as a moratorium on oyster harvests, and the introduction of Japanese oysters into the Chesapeake. Those oysters, now grown commercially on America's West Coast and throughout much of the world, may be able to fend off MSX and Dermo, but also may overwhelm the bay's native oysters.
Before yesterday's session, several participants said they hoped some middle ground could be found among the feuding factions.
"You can't sit around that round table and talk [oysters] back into the bay, but maybe we can come up with some ways to solve this situation," said Levin F. "Buddy" Harrison, a Tilghman Island businessman who runs an oyster packing house.
"What I hope is we'll finally be able to legalize the practice of oyster aquaculture in Maryland," said Brad Powers, aquaculture coordinator for the state Department of Agriculture. Though profitable on the West Coast, oyster farming has been slow to catch on in Maryland, Mr. Powers said, mostly because watermen have blocked enabling legislation.
But Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, derided those who promote aquaculture as a "magic wand" to cure the bay's oyster problems. He insisted that diseases and economics make large-scale oyster farming unrealistic in the Chesapeake.
"We've been through these kinds of times before," Mr. Simns said, adding that watermen have more to fear from regulation of fishing than from shellfish diseases or shortages.
Said state Sen. Bernie Fowler: "I really believe there's a serious, concerted consensus now to try to do something about the oyster industry. Everybody knows there's a problem now, and we usually react to a crisis.
"It can't get much worse," added the Southern Maryland Democrat.