Md. oysters in recovery

April 24, 2007|By Torrey C. Brown

There has been much discussion recently over oyster management in Maryland and the role that the Oyster Recovery Partnership has played in this nationally recognized restoration success story.

The Chesapeake Bay oyster industry was the envy of the world until the oyster stock collapsed nearly 50 years ago because of disease, habitat loss, declining water quality and harvest pressure. In summer 1993, the state of Maryland convened the Oyster Roundtable, a coalition of 40 organizations, institutions, elected officials, businesses and individuals, to address the major concerns about oyster stocks in the Chesapeake Bay and formulate a plan for promoting recovery. Roundtable members reached a consensus and published an action plan for oyster recovery in Maryland.

The plan had three major objectives: to maximize and enhance the ecological benefits of oysters; to maximize and enhance the economic benefits derived from harvesting in the public and private oyster fisheries; and to maximize the ability of government to respond effectively to the problem.

Another outcome of the action plan was the creation of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. In 1994, the nonprofit organization was formed to implement the objectives of the Oyster Roundtable action plan and coordinate efforts among state and federal governmental agencies, scientists, watermen and conservation organizations. The partnership established and strengthened trust and respect with the diverse group of program partners, enabling them to share a common vision, which has resulted in a coordinated, highly effective and transparent restoration program.

With support from the Maryland congressional delegation, the partnership's grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funds the necessary scientific research and infrastructure that have enabled the partnership to plant hundreds of millions of oysters each year. With every project, the partnership works with experts in their respective fields and the management agencies to assist with the monumental task of oyster restoration, monitoring and adaptive management.

These experts include scientists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science who have drastically increased oyster hatchery production, a key element to the restoration efforts - and Maryland watermen, who have the necessary boats, equipment and knowledge of the bay to bring local experience and expertise to our projects and who collect oysters considered to have natural disease resistance for use as brood stock for the hatchery.

The partnership has planted more than 1 billion oysters - having increased the output from 15 million oysters per year to a record 330 million disease-free spat on shell in 2006 - on 60 large sanctuary, "managed-reserve" and harvest sites, each providing valuable habitat for other bay creatures while filtering excess nutrients from the bay's waters.

Many innovative and adaptive oyster management techniques are being used, such as planting harvest bars with disease-free seed and creating harvestable managed-reserve oyster bars. The criteria for harvesting managed-reserve oysters are much stricter than what state regulations require. With limits on harvest dates and harvest gear and increased minimum oyster size requirements, reserve oysters provide greater ecological benefits because they remain and grow in the bay for an additional year or two and then provide watermen with a more valuable product at harvest time.

Nearly 500 million oysters have been planted under the partnership's managed-reserve program since it began in 2001. Of these, only a small fraction - less than 1 percent - have been harvested, and many millions continue to live in the bay. About 160 million oysters have been planted on open bars for potential harvest by watermen. Today, there are also 30 non-harvestable oyster sanctuaries throughout the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake, many of which are the result of cooperative efforts among the partnership, watermen and conservation groups.

Our many successes notwithstanding, there is still more to do. Our partners and stakeholders will play a key role in helping us become more effective and efficient in our oyster management techniques and increasing the pace of oyster planting to 2 billion annually. Our vision is clear: to restore the oyster population to the point where they are abundant, self-producing and living throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

Torrey C. Brown is chairman of the board of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. He is a former Maryland Department of Natural Resources secretary and a former member of the House of Delegates. His e-mail is torrey@intralytix.com.

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