Oyster `restoration' costing clams

December 09, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

There's an oyster moratorium hanging in the air.

No, a Department of Natural Resources birdie didn't tweet in my ear. And, no, Coastal Conservation Association didn't slip a secret message under the newsroom door decipherable only with a decoder ring.

But as sure as God made little green apples and salty bivalves, that's where Maryland is going.

Despite years of effort by scientists and expenditure of millions of public dollars, there aren't any oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Or at least not enough to put the word "oyster" next to the word "industry" with a straight face.

Numbers don't lie. Last year, watermen harvested 154,355 bushels of oysters. That's down from 1.24 million bushels 20 years ago and 2.23 million bushels in 1976. Rumor has it that the most recent harvest will be half of last year's take, with the Chesapeake on a dismal up-and-down cycle of "none" and "few."

Don't take my word for it. In a recent e-mail to members of the oyster restoration community, Roger Mann, the top researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, warned that "by any agricultural standard for dealing with an under-producing species, we have been a miserable failure."

So why did DNR this month open to watermen the oyster reserve areas in the Chester, Choptank and Patuxent rivers?

The reason: "to increase harvest and mitigate potential oyster losses due to disease," according to the announcement.

What a crock.

Under the guise of restoration, taxpayer money is shoveled to watermen to plant oyster seed, clean oyster bars and transport the little suckers around to better homes like movie stars in limos. We should all be so lucky.

But after all the restoring is done and a few years pass, DNR lets watermen into the reserves to scoop up the oysters we paid for and sell them because the agency is afraid the oysters might get sick. ("We have to kill the oysters to save the oysters.")

The "potential" for disease, huh? Well, we're all going to end up diseased. Let's go jump in a six-foot-deep hole now and save our families the expense.

There's no end in sight, writes Mann in his e-mail: "The only option for a fishery/economic `restoration' will require continual economic input. Thus the evaluation of the option is simple. Money in must be less than money out. Anything else is open public subsidy. If the powers that be want to spend money in this fashion so be it, but let us at least be open and honest."

How can we be sure the state's oyster reserves are nothing but a make-work project for watermen? Let DNR tell you in its own words on its Web site: "A managed oyster reserve is a site where oyster spat are planted and grown specifically for the purpose of maximizing the economic value of the oysters for watermen. ... Reserve openings are focused during times of peak demand, such as around holidays, to further enhance their market value."

Gee, DNR, what are you giving the rest of us for Christmas?

Perhaps a better solution is coming. A group established by the Legislature, the Oyster Advisory Commission, is preparing a report for lawmakers. Its next meeting is Dec. 20.

But even if the commission comes up with a bold plan of action, chances are the Legislature will water it down like a drink in a cheap bar and charge us extra. Besides, there's a limited amount of good that can be done in the bilge water that comes down the Susquehanna River or runs off Kent Island subdivisions and empties into the bay.

Pass the lemon wedges and cocktail sauce and let's finish off what's left. Given the dismal picture, the word "moratorium" looks better all the time.

That's why some people barely had their coats off last week at a two-day oyster workshop in La Plata when the "M" word came up in the welcoming remarks.

I'm not heartless when it comes to dying industries. I'm in one, if you believe Wall Street pundits. But I don't expect to have my livelihood preserved by a government handout, and neither should watermen.

I have friends who make their living from the water. There was a time when I used to dig clams commercially to supplement my meager paycheck and to pay off college debts.

The work is hard. The hours are awful. The future is dim. The pay stinks. Other than that, it's great.

Instead of continuing the oyster subsidy-restoration charade, some folks are suggesting a buyout. The concept's not new. The federal government bought out New England watermen and Southern tobacco farmers.

State records show there are fewer than 700 licensed oyster harvesters - compared with 3,784 in 1989 - but doesn't indicate the level of their activity.

How many make a living at it? Privately, some DNR biologists put the number at a few dozen. What's their annual take? How many working years do each of them have left? It's not hard to figure out what a buyout would cost. Insurance companies do it all the time in figuring benefits.

Please don't whine about the loss of Chesapeake Bay tradition. That train left the station when we turned a blind eye to rampant development and declining habitat and water quality.

It's time to stop flushing good money - our money - down a rat hole and grandly calling it oyster restoration. Lawmakers such as Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Congressman Steny "Investing in Programs That Work" Hoyer have to insist on accountability.

At the very least, we should listen to Mann: "Given the long-term lack of progress in restoring the oyster for both ecological and fishery purposes, I think we should start ... with one question written on the wall: Why should we continue to spend money, any money on this activity?"

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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