Oystermen reap federal bounty

Bid to revive bivalve benefits watermen more

Sun special report

April 01, 2007|By Rona Kobell and Greg Garland | Rona Kobell and Greg Garland,Sun reporters

At the Hyatt Regency resort in Cambridge, several dozen scientists, watermen and government regulators gathered to sip martinis and mingle over hors d'oeuvres. Later, there were cheers and tributes as they dined on crab and filet mignon.

The mood was celebratory at January's annual meeting of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. Yet the government-financed nonprofit has made little progress toward its stated mission of restoring oysters to the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland officials set up the group more than a decade ago in what was envisioned as a groundbreaking attempt to revive a species all but destroyed by overharvesting and disease. Since 2002 alone, the partnership has received $10 million in federal funds to lead Maryland's efforts to make oysters an abundant, self-sustaining species again.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of inaccurate information provided to The Sun, an April 1 article incorrectly reported the results of a federal study of a Maryland Department of Natural Resources program to move oyster seed. The study found that for every $1 the state spent to move seed to create an oyster crop for watermen to harvest, the watermen earned 78 cents in oyster sales, according to Robert Wieland, an economist hired by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Sun regrets the error.

The way to do that, leading scientists say, is to leave the shellfish in the water so they can reproduce and propagate the species. But the partnership puts most of its oysters in places where watermen can take them out - and sell them for roughly $30 a bushel.

"If you're serious about the ecological value of oysters, then they must remain in the bay and live," said veteran oyster biologist George Krantz, former fisheries director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The partnership's spending has done more to create income for watermen than bring back the Maryland oyster, an investigation by The Sun has found. The group not only provides watermen a crop to harvest, but it also pays them to do work that many scientists say has little merit.

The Sun found:

While the partnership has planted tens of millions of hatchery-raised oysters, less than a third have been put in protected sanctuaries. Most are planted in places where they can be harvested.

The group is paying the Maryland Watermen's Association nearly $400,000 this year to remove diseased oysters from one part of the bay and dump them in another. Proponents say this practice helps other oysters survive, but it has no proven scientific value. Critics say a primary benefit is to provide work for watermen.

The head of the Watermen's Association sits on the partnership's board and is among those who benefit financially from the federal grants. Association president Larry Simns Sr. doled out tens of thousands of dollars of the grant money to watermen last year to help plant or move oysters. Also, he collected $40,100 for supervising their work.

The group used $46,000 in federal funds to hold its annual meeting at the Hyatt Regency, a golf resort and spa. The money went not just for the fancy dinner but also for hotel rooms for 50 of the guests. Private funds were used only for the alcohol.

While solid figures are not available, the Department of Natural Resources estimates that there are fewer oysters in the Chesapeake today than when the Oyster Recovery Partnership began its work in 1994. Its efforts have failed to overcome the devastating impact of two oyster parasites, MSX and Dermo, that have all but wiped out the oyster population.

Partnership officials nonetheless consider their work a huge success.

"We're certainly doing infinitely better than what has been done in the past," said Torrey C. Brown, a former state natural resources secretary who now serves as the partnership's unpaid chairman. He is proud of the group's extensive oyster-planting program.

Partnership officials say it makes sense to let watermen harvest many of those oysters because the shellfish would die eventually of disease. They point out that in the several years before the oysters are harvested, they help the bay by filtering away pollution.

"The idea that it is a watermen's welfare program is nonsense," Brown said. "I don't think that they're getting any untoward benefit."

Though the partnership gets millions in federal funds, it operates with virtually no governmental oversight. The group gets the money as the result of a budget "earmark" arranged by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, and the grant is distributed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A top NOAA official acknowledged that his agency hasn't intervened as the partnership used the grant to run programs that he said are effectively subsidies for watermen.

Because the money was approved specifically for the partnership through an earmark, agency officials believed they had no authority to interfere, said Lowell Bahner, a NOAA administrator who until recently oversaw the agency's Chesapeake Bay office.

"Senator Mikulski said, `I want oysters in the water for harvest by watermen,'" Bahner said. "Is that a subsidy? That's what it looks like. And I think she would be proud of that."

Mikulski declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a written response to questions from The Sun, she said she expected NOAA "to have strong oversight" of how the grant was being spent. In addition, she said the money "was never intended to be a subsidy for industry or watermen."

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