Md. drops oyster dredging proposal

Ehrlich shelves plan to expand area of `power' harvesting

September 23, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN REPORTER

The Ehrlich administration said yesterday that it is shelving a proposal to expand motorized dredging for oysters in the Chesapeake Bay because of widespread opposition from the public and scientists.

Watermen had pushed for the expansion, which would have expanded the portion of the bay open to "power dredging" from about 30 percent of the estuary to about 40 percent.

But environmentalists and scientists sharply criticized the idea, saying that more power dredging would only accelerate the destruction of the bay's oyster population, which has plummeted because of disease, pollution and overfishing.

Oysters are so scarce in the bay that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is studying whether they should be listed as an endangered species.

Michael Slattery, an assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the agency is tabling the proposal until more research can be conducted on the impact that an expansion might have on the oyster population.

"The public sentiment was overwhelmingly against the proposal, and we thought it was important ... to quickly pull back and embark on some field trials to show we can expand power dredging responsibly," Slattery said.

Power dredging is the harvesting of oysters by dragging metal scoops along the bay's bottom behind motor boats. Such dredging was banned in Maryland for almost a century because it led to excessive harvesting of the shellfish. Much harvesting was done instead by watermen standing in boats holding pincher-like devices called hand tongs.

In the 1980s, the state began allowing a small amount of power dredging off Smith Island. The Ehrlich administration significantly expanded the zone to almost a third of the bay in January 2003.

After being asked by legislators from Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore to expand the zone again, managers at the Department of Natural Resources agreed to propose adding areas off Anne Arundel County, Solomons, Kent Island and Poplar Island, among other sections of the bay.

The state had agreed with the position of watermen that, because so many oysters die of disease, increasing the efficiency of fishing them would not hurt the overall population of the bivalves, Slattery said.

Some watermen, such as Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, have also asserted that power dredging helps boost oyster populations by sweeping diseased shellfish and silt off breeding grounds.

But that position was challenged by University of Maryland scientists, who said there is no evidence that the theory is true.

Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told a state advisory panel this week that there is a consensus among scientists that power dredging is reasonable only in areas where there is a regular growth of new oysters or the continuing planting of oysters.

Many of the areas targeted for the expanded power dredging don't have healthy oyster reproduction and are not being seeded, so more harvesting is unwise, Boesch said.

"It's a prudent decision," Boesch said of the state's decision to back down. "I think the decision was based on that scientific advice. They listened to the science and to all the public concern."

Bill Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, also had objected to the expansion. "All it would have done is increase the efficiency of harvest at a time when the stocks are very low," Goldsborough said.

The state isn't giving up on the idea of expanding the zones in the future, Slattery said. The state has asked Torrey Brown, a former secretary of natural resources, to work with a panel of experts to devise a study of whether expanded power dredging will help or hurt oyster populations.

To help watermen immediately, the state will open the power dredging season two weeks earlier this fall - on Oct. 15 instead of Nov. 1, Slattery said. This will allow the watermen to make a little more money at a time when oyster prices are high because hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico knocked out the nation's largest supply. "We want to provide some relief to the watermen in the industry," Slattery said. "They will be able to make some money in a short period of time."

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