More motorized oystering proposed

With harvests shrinking, goal is to help watermen

Expansion of motorized oyster dredging sought

August 17, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

At a time when the population of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay is near a record low, the Ehrlich administration is proposing to make it easier for watermen to catch them through the more widespread use of motorized dredging.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources plans to hold public hearings this month on a proposal to expand the portion of the bay open to "power dredging" from about 30 percent of the estuary to about 40 percent.

Power dredging, banned for almost a century because it led to excessive harvesting of oysters, is the dragging of metal scoops along the bay's bottom behind motor vessels.

FOR THE RECORD - A map in yesterday's editions about a proposed expansion of power oyster dredging identified the wrong Wicomico River as one of the areas covered by the proposal. The state is proposing to allow power dredging at the mouth of the Wicomico River on Maryland's western shore, not the Wicomico River on the Eastern Shore. The Sun regrets the error.

The state is proposing to open up 10 more sections of the bay to power dredging - including areas off Anne Arundel County, Solomons, Kent Island and Poplar Island - to help watermen struggling to earn a living because of the plummeting oyster population.

"We are responding to requests from elected officials in Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore," said Michael Slattery, an assistant secretary at the DNR. "If there is significant public opposition to the expansion, that needs to be weighed very heavily," he said.

Many environmentalists and biologists argue that allowing more aggressive harvesting techniques now, when the oyster population is so diminished, would hurt the bivalve's chances of recovery.

"It's almost unprecedented that in the face of declining abundance of oysters, you increase the efficiency with which you can catch the remaining ones," said Roger Newell, a professor of marine biology at the University of Maryland. "The best chance to build up these populations is to stop fishing them out."

Once a mainstay of Maryland's economy, oysters have been devastated by over-fishing, pollution and disease. The harvest fell from 2.5 million bushels in 1976 to about 46,000 bushels last season, according to state figures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is studying whether the Chesapeake native oyster should be listed as an endangered species.

The population is so low that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his administration are considering introducing Asian oysters into the bay. A report on the issue is expected this winter.

For decades, oysters were harvested from the Chesapeake Bay largely by hand. Watermen stood in boats and worked tongs, pincher-like devices with long handles, to pluck shellfish off the bottom. Or they dragged dredges behind sailboats.

As steam-powered boats became more popular in the 19th century, watermen found that they could scoop up many times more oysters if they hauled their dredges behind vessels with powerful engines.

Maryland banned power dredging in 1867, and the prohibition remained until the 1960s, when, in an effort to save the dwindling fleet of vintage sailing vessels called skipjacks, the state began allowing the sailboats to drag dredges two days a week while being pushed by smaller motorboats.

In the early 1980s, the state allowed a small amount of dredging behind powerboats off Smith Island. In 1999, the power dredging area was expanded to include parts of the bay off the lower Eastern Shore.

The Ehrlich administration significantly enlarged the power dredging zone - to about 30 percent of the bay - in January 2003. Public hearings on the administration's proposal for a second expansion are scheduled for Aug. 24 in Princess Anne, Aug. 29 in Leonardtown and Sept. 8 in Easton.

Two advocates of the expansion, Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, and Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, said dredging helps boost the oyster population by sweeping diseased shellfish and silt off underwater breeding grounds.

"It's a good thing environmentally to harvest the oyster," Colburn said. "The fact is that if you don't harvest them, there are great odds they will die from disease in three to five years."

Simns said the survival of watermen is also at stake.

"The ancient ways that we used to harvest oysters ... it's not economically feasible to harvest them that way anymore," he said. "The hand-tongers have gotten to the point where they can't make a living anymore. They catch three or four bushels all day long, whereas with power dredging, you can get 24 bushels a day in a two-man boat."

The University of Maryland's Newell, who has studied oysters for three decades, said the claim that dredging helps oysters is a "smokescreen" for a wrongheaded effort to help watermen.

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said the parasites MSX and Dermo have devastated the bay's native oysters. Those that have survived should be treated with great care, he said.

"There is a concern that the oysters still out there may be the survivors, the ones that are resistant to disease," Boesch said. "And we need to be careful about removing them, because they could be the basis for recovering the population."

The Maryland chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association is among the groups opposing the proposed expansion.

"In struggling fisheries the world over, as the numbers diminish, people become more aggressive in order to take the last fish, and that's what's going on here, too," said Dr. Kenneth Lewis, head of government relations for the group. "It just continues the destruction of the species."

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