If state officials want to restore the Chesapeake Bay's once-thriving oyster population, they need to provide more funds for producing oysters, building reefs, encouraging aquaculture and preventing poaching from oyster sanctuaries, environmental experts said yesterday.
Representatives from the University of Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Oyster Recovery Partnership laid out several ways to bring back the bay's moribund oyster population at a hearing yesterday before the House of Delegates Environmental Matters Committee. The committee is expected to consider legislation focusing on restoring the bay's native oysters, which filter the bay's increasingly polluted water and build reefs that provide crucial habitat for fish and other bay life.
"Oysters are a must if we are serious about cleaning up the bay overall," said Stephanie Reynolds, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "The population is so decimated right now that it's probably not likely to come back on its own."
Reynolds said the bay needs the assistance of the hatchery at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Horn Point Laboratory. Horn Point has ramped up its efforts considerably in the past six years, going from 15 million baby oysters planted in the bay in 2000 to more than 350 million planted last year.
The oysters are divided into sanctuaries, harvest bars and managed reserves, a hybrid of the two where oysters remain on bars for four years before being opened to watermen for harvest.
Reynolds said the foundation would like to see an increased emphasis on planting in sanctuaries, as well as increased enforcement from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources police in patrolling the sanctuaries. It takes years of labor and a lot of money to establish a sanctuary, but one waterman can hit a restored oyster bar and clean out the whole crop very quickly.
Donald F. Boesch, president of University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said his institution has made a lot of progress in oyster restoration, but it has come in "fits and starts" due to delays in funding. The hatchery staff would like to produce a billion oysters a year, which scientists believe could give the population enough of a jump-start to replenish itself on its own over time. But, Boesch said, that effort has been hamstrung by a two-year delay in state funding to build a dock that would increase the hatchery's capacity.
If the funding is further delayed, Boesch said, "that is a very difficult thing to accept if we're going to ramp up the restoration effort."
Boesch told the committee that the state must also encourage aquaculture. Scientists and fisheries managers throughout the state have long maintained that Maryland needs to loosen state regulations to make it easier for entrepreneurs to lease bay bottom and grow shellfish, which will filter the water and stimulate the economy.
Virginia has a thriving aquaculture industry, in large part because state law encourages watermen to lease bottom for planting. Maryland historically has maintained a "wild bottom" where watermen take what nature put there.
Last week, House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller introduced legislation, at the request of the O'Malley administration, that would authorize DNR to lease land under specified waters for restoration purposes, encourage aquaculture and establish an oyster restoration task force.
"We need to envision a future where a wild bottom harvest is not going to be there," Boesch told the committee yesterday. "It's not sustainable ecologically."