A group of watermen who say the state is not doing enough to sustain the Chesapeake Bay's troubled oyster industry are launching a new advocacy group.
In July, Jimmy Kline, a Cecil County waterman, filed paperwork with the state to form the Maryland Oystermen Association, a nonprofit based in Rock Hall. Once the application process is complete, Kline said he expects about 100 watermen to join.
The group's main goal, Kline said, will be to persuade state officials to move large amounts of natural oyster seed and shell around the bay - which the Maryland Department of Natural Resources did for decades but has cut back on recently - in order to give watermen a crop to harvest.
"We feel that we've been sold out on oyster recovery," Kline said. "And the watermen are the last people who want to see the industry die. We're the ones who have the most at stake."
Kline's push comes at a time when Maryland's tiny oyster industry is struggling to stay alive in the face of pollution and two diseases that have devastated oyster populations since the 1960s. Some scientists have argued that the state should not promote an oyster harvest but instead should impose a moratorium so the species can recover. The DNR is awaiting results of a multiyear study that, among other issues, will address whether a moratorium could bring back the species.
For decades, the department has taken baby oysters from the high-salinity waters of the lower bay, placed them on freshly dredged shells and moved them north. The idea is that the oysters, which are ravaged by disease when left in the salty lower bay, will thrive in the fresher waters north of the Bay Bridge. To pay for this "repletion" program, the state levies an oyster surcharge of $300 on every watermen holding an oyster license, as well as a $1-per-bushel tax on the dock.
But during the past decade, as oyster harvests shrank, the repletion money also dwindled. Though about 500 people held oyster licenses last season, only a few dozen watermen still make a living from oysters, DNR officials have said.
Last year, the agency decided not to pursue its federal permit to dredge shells after conservation groups opposed it, arguing that the dredging disturbed fish spawning grounds.
Without the shell, the department can't move much seed - though it still operates a small repletion program using other shell sources, said DNR Deputy Secretary Eric Schwaab.
Many scientists and oyster managers also criticized the repletion program because, in moving seed around the bay, the DNR inadvertently spread disease. The decision to move the seed was not based on scientific need, according to agency officials, but was dictated by local oyster committees, based on their economic needs.
"It supported the fishery in a put-and-take kind of way," said Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "So if your interest is to have oysters you can catch, it was a good thing. The problem is, it had this added side effect of spreading disease around that we just can't ignore."
Goldsborough said repletion work can be carried out with minimal risk if done properly. He expects that state officials will review the issue thoroughly when the state's new Oyster Advisory Commission meets this month.
The commission, formed by the legislature this year, likely will also examine the work of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a nonprofit created more than a decade ago to restore the bay's oyster population. Since 2002, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has earmarked $10 million in federal money for the partnership - money the group is using to produce oysters at the University of Maryland's Horn Point hatchery, and then planting them in the bay. The ORP has planted nearly 1 billion oysters - most in areas where watermen could eventually harvest them.
Though scientists and public officials have criticized the ORP's spending - including $46,000 it spent on a lavish dinner and about $400,000 paid to watermen for "cleaning" oyster bars by moving diseased oysters to saltier waters - its approach has become the favored oyster restoration technique. This year, Gov. Martin O'Malley pledged $9 million to the Horn Point Laboratory, which will allow the oyster program to triple what it puts into the bay.
But Kline said he believes the hatchery will never be able to restore the bay's oysters. He wants the DNR to get some money to resurrect the repletion program.
"If they can give all those millions to that science project they've got going down there, why don't they give us a million to try it our way?" Kline asked. "They put all their eggs in one basket, and it's a basket that keeps cracking."
Schwaab said the agency would like to move more seed and is considering its oyster restoration options.
"I don't think that anybody is satisfied with the current state of oysters in the bay, and we know that we need to do a better job," he said. "We're not going to get there by doing things the way we've been doing them."
Maryland's oystermen have long been represented by the Maryland Watermen's Association. It is headed by Larry Simns, an ORP board member who earned $40,000 for supervising bar-cleaning operations last year.
Simns said he sympathizes with the oystermen, but that starting a new group isn't going to fix the problem.
"They need to find out the same thing I found out: There's only so much you can do," Simns said. "I ain't God. I can't make DNR do stuff. I can't make the legislature do stuff. They think we ain't trying. We are trying - we're just not powerful enough."