Tentative pact reached to rescue the bay's oysters Aquaculture, harvesting limits adopted as watermen agree to a compromise

October 19, 1993|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

Also yesterday, the name of Gordon "Reds" Wolman, a Maryland scientist and member of a state advisory panel on oysters, was misspelled.

The Sun regrets the errors.

A tentative agreement on steps to rescue the Chesapeake Bay oyster was reached yesterday by a disparate group of watermen, environmentalists, politicians and businessmen.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Meeting as an advisory panel to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the group decided the state should set aside portions of the Chester, Choptank, Patuxent, Nanticoke, Severn and Magothy rivers as oyster recovery and research areas where harvesting would be limited.

The rescue plan also includes aquaculture. For the first time, the state could issue up to 20 permits granting individuals or companies the right to use five to 10 acres of the Chesapeake for up to five years to demonstrate that oysters can be "farmed" profitably in floating baskets or on barren portions of the bottom.

"The effort is oriented toward restoring a large number of oysters to the bay," said Gordon "Reds" Wallman, a Maryland scientist, who presided over an eight-hour debate in Annapolis yesterday leading to the tentative accord. "In the past the effort was always to save something already hopelessly gone or aimed at helping a specific industry."

Though the agreement still must be signed by the participants, it calls on the DNR to convert the provisions into state regulations and make them available for public comment by Jan. 1. Limits on harvesting probably would not take effect until next oystering season.

State officials organized the 40-member advisory group in July to address the decline of oysters in the bay. The industry suffered ++ through its worst oyster season ever last fall and winter. With shellfish beds ravaged by two parasitic diseases in 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, now affect 80 percent to 85 percent of the bay, state officials estimate.

In recent years, attempts to reach a consensus on conservation have failed because environmentalists, fisheries managers, scientists and watermen could never agree on the causes of the oyster crisis or what to do about it.

Harvesting limits proposed under the new plan had appeared to be a major obstacle this time because watermen had been reluctant to give up their fishing rights in the Chester River, which has the largest shellfish population in the upper bay.

But Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, was among the people who hammered out the plan in a DNR conference room yesterday. And other factions changed long-held positions as part of the rescue effort.

"That we got everyone to agree is a real step forward," Mr. Wallman said.

Some were not entirely satisfied. State Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, an Annapolis Democrat and a leading environmentalist, favors stronger measures. "To me, we need to be much bolder. . . . We weren't even allowed to discuss" `D moratoriums, he said.

Many participants had hoped to finish and sign the agreement yesterday. But others wanted to see a final draft that incorporates a flurry of amendments made during the eight hours.

The plan marks a new cooperative effort between watermen, who traditionally opposed allowing aquaculture any entry to the bay, and the aquaculture industry.

Yesterday Mr. Simns and Tom Hopkins, president of the Maryland Aquaculture Association, sat side by side, spelling out a common position on the proposed pilot program that would formally welcome aquaculture to the Chesapeake. And they also discussed forming a nonprofit co-venture to develop successful

ways to "farm" oysters.

"The watermen clearly have indicated a desire at this point to begin cooperating," Mr. Wallman said.

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