Plan urges oyster reefs

Bay scientists propose sanctuaries as way to revive stock

`Restore and manage'

Report suggests setting aside areas for commercial harvests

July 22, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Chesapeake Bay scientists have proposed a string of permanent oyster sanctuaries on large reefs as part of a multimillion-dollar plan to revive the bay's oyster stock, which has been devastated in recent years by disease and overfishing.

The reefs would cover 10 percent of the bay's traditional oyster-bar acreage in parts of the bay that historically yielded large harvests of oysters. Reefs would be set aside nearby for commercial harvesting under the plan, approved by scientists from Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

The scientists met at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS) in Wachapreague, Va., in January and released their report this week. They have not, however, approached government officials with their plan or figured out how to pay for it.

"This is just the science part," said Eugene Burreson, a VIMS scientist who was chairman of the group. "We haven't had time yet to fully discuss the implementation."

Instituting the proposal would take several years, he said.

The scientists said the recovery plan should be seen as a way not only to sustain the oyster fishery but also to restore the health of Chesapeake Bay. Oysters filter pollution from the water, improving water clarity and allowing the penetration of light critical for underwater vegetation. Their reefs provide habitat for themselves and other organisms.

"The restoration philosophy must be to restore and manage oyster populations for their ecological value, but in such a way that a sustainable fishery can exist," the scientists found.

The plan is a synthesis of operations already in place in Maryland and Virginia, said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and an organizer of the conference.

For years, Maryland has set aside sanctuaries, where oystering is forbidden and there are tight controls on oysters that have been infected by the diseases Dermo and MSX. Virginia has built large reefs and stocked them with genetically-altered oysters resistant to the diseases.

The proposal is "a combination of what works best in both states," Boesch said.

Though watermen might balk at the concept, "we have to come to grips with establishing sanctuaries in perpetuity," he said.

Burreson conceded that scientists are unsure how many acres 10 percent of the historically productive bars would cover, but he said it was a number "managers and industry members could support."

"We figured people could live with it," he said. "It seems to us to be a reasonable estimate."

Russell Dize, a Tilghman Island skipjack captain, is one of those watermen leery of the idea of a permanent sanctuary.

"I don't agree with the idea of permanent anything," he says. "Things change. I just hope this wouldn't harm them somewhere down the road."

Maryland's Department of Natural Resources "believes in increasing the oyster population of the bay to improve the health of the bay," said John Surrick, department spokesman.

Maryland DNR has programs to develop disease-resistant oysters and to plant their spat in beds throughout the bay and its tributaries. More than 10 million spat have been hatched this year in state oyster hatcheries, he said.

Chesapeake Bay oyster landings reached a peak of 24 million bushels in 1887 but fell to a steady rate of about 5 million bushels by 1930 and have plummeted more during the past decade.

The all-time low catch was 79,618 bushels in the 1993-1994 season.

The figures have since rebounded, partly because of oyster-restoration efforts. Maryland watermen landed more than 300,000 bushels in the season that ended in March.

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