Power dredging not a sound oyster fix

ON THE BAY

Proposal: Watermen deserve a more scientific, long-term solution to managing the rapidly declining native oyster population.

August 26, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

My granddad, Thomas Jefferson Caruthers, raised in rural Missouri, told of a local farmer, notorious for weekend binges in town that left him bloody and hung over.

As the farmer passed by one afternoon, someone hollered, "Headed for town?" Came the reply: "Yes, and damned if I don't dread it."

In similar fashion, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources appears headed for another political beating over its poor choices in oyster management.

For the third time in recent years, DNR has proposed expanding power dredging for oysters. Dragging dredges behind motorized work boats is far more effective than the traditional tonging from stationary boats and dredging under sail.

But can you make it easier to catch oysters when they are at historic low levels (down to 46,000 bushels last winter from 2.5 million in 1976 and 423,000 in 1999)?

I don't know of a single knowledgeable scientist outside of DNR who believes this wholesale expansion of power dredging is responsible management.

Last month, in a consensus statement of its bay oyster experts, the University of Maryland warned against just such a move.

Watermen, who back more power dredging, are desperate, with the number of oystermen, less than 300, at about a tenth that of just a decade ago.

They devoutly believe that plowing large areas of the bay bottom in winter, by raking up old, silted-over shell, prepares it for a good "set" of young oysters the next summer.

It's a faith that harks back to far older beliefs of agriculturalists about keeping the garden, husbanding the land, feelings almost of human obligation to tend the soil.

But no science supports that power dredging actually helps oysters, nor does the DNR endorse that.

The department instead is positioning itself as a neutral broker, saying it is only responding to requests from watermen and their legislators to open to power an area that - adding in previous expansions - would represent the majority of bay oyster grounds.

But DNR is charged with managing oysters based on good science, not just conducting public opinion polls (there will be three public hearings on the latest proposal).

The fact that there is scarcely a pretense of science or a coherent management plan involved in the power dredging proposal is the real problem here.

It's a problem because it leads to no long-term, sustainable solution for watermen.

It's a problem because it perpetuates decades of managing oysters piecemeal, in response to whims of politics and expediency.

It's a problem because it discredits DNR's claims of impartiality in its continuing assessment of whether to introduce an Asian oyster to the bay or stick with restoring the native oyster.

"They say they have not abandoned the native oyster, but this is not a very convincing way to prove it," says Bill Goldsborough, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's senior fisheries scientist.

Finally, it's a problem because it will hinder support for some things DNR has begun to do right with the bay's oysters.

The department has pioneered, with watermen and university researchers, small-scale restoration projects that use carefully targeted power dredging to clean areas of diseased oysters.

The areas are then replanted with disease-resistant native oysters from hatcheries. Watermen have begun to make small but significant harvests from such sites, which might be a template for future, larger-scale restoration.

The department has also recently reconvened, for the first time in two years, an advisory committee that lets all stakeholders, from watermen to environmentalists, comment on oyster policy.

There's no lack of urgent topics for the reconstituted committee to discuss: the wisdom of a DNR program that spreads diseased oysters into new areas; the unspent money earmarked for native oyster restoration; the need to establish more oyster sanctuaries.

Another topic needing immediate attention is how to compensate and employ oystermen if power dredging is not expanded - or more properly, is reduced from current levels.

The great majority of last year's harvest was taken by power dredging. Tonging oysters by hand, how most were once caught, took only a few percent.

It's possible that without use of power, there wouldn't be an oyster season, for the first time since commercial oystering began in the 1800s.

The current DNR proposal may well be defeated. Environmental and sport-fishing groups, who value the oyster for filtering and cleansing the water and as habitat for other bay life, are lining up to oppose it.

Similarly, politicians who don't represent oystermen have realized that they must represent oysters in the name of the environment, and are calling for legislative hearings.

The University of Maryland consensus last month is fresh and compelling reason to back off on power dredging.

Additionally, the federal government is conducting a yearlong inquiry into declaring the native oyster an endangered species. That probably won't happen, but the fact that the situation is dire enough to qualify for a full federal assessment makes proposals to catch remaining oysters faster seem preposterous.

This is a good time for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a frequent advocate of decisions based on sound science, to step in and give his DNR some needed backbone.

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