State seeks ways to back aquaculture industry

Proposal would help businesses, individuals raise oysters in bay

November 14, 2008|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Seeking to boost Maryland's fledgling aquaculture industry, the O'Malley administration plans to introduce legislation to make it easier for people and businesses to raise oysters or other shellfish in the Chesapeake Bay.

The administration has drafted a bill that would overhaul the state's law that now limits leasing of the water and the bay bottom to private entities that want to raise oysters or clams. The measure was presented last night at the state's Aquaculture Coordinating Council meeting in Annapolis.

Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin said the state needs to cut away the red tape and legal limitations on leasing in the Chesapeake if the state's once-prolific oyster industry is going to recover from the diseases that have devastated the Chesapeake's oyster population over the past two decades.

"If you look worldwide, the only places where oysters seem to be thriving is in aquaculture settings," Griffin said yesterday. "There's very few public fisheries left."

The initiative comes as Maryland, Virginia and the federal government weigh how to go about restoring the bay's disease-depleted oyster stocks as well as its industry, which once harvested millions of bushels of bivalves annually. Harvests in recent years have been a fraction of historical levels, though, as a pair of parasitic diseases have killed off the oysters before they can grow to marketable size. Scientists have said that the bay's once-abundant oysters helped filter pollution from the estuary.

State officials held a public hearing last night on whether to introduce a disease-resistant Asian oyster into the bay or stick with efforts to rebuild native oyster stocks. The state and federal agencies are considering steps to encourage aquaculture in either case.

A small but growing cadre of people, including some watermen, are trying their hand at raising oysters. Some say they are finding ways to beat the diseases but remain hampered by legal and bureaucratic hurdles - with the state's leasing restrictions among the most nettlesome.

"We have 100-plus years of cobbled-together, piecemeal" leasing law, said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Southern Maryland and a member of the aquaculture council. He said the law "doesn't make sense in today's world."

There are currently 7,276 acres leased in Maryland waters, with about 300 individuals holding 700 20-year leases. However, relatively little of that is being used to raise oysters, state officials say.

State law prohibits leasing where oysters grow naturally. But those restrictions are based on century-old surveys, when oysters were much more abundant, so much of the bay is off-limits. Leasing also is completely banned in a handful of counties.

"We've got to clear away some of that underbrush and help to build our industry here," Griffin said.

The administration bill proposes to reserve for wild harvest only those waters where oysters recently were caught and to remove limitations on the size and location of leases. It also would remove the ban on corporations holding leases.

The measure would also establish a pair of "aquaculture enterprise zones" in the Patuxent and Rhode rivers. In those 50-acre tracts, leasing would be streamlined and essentially "pre-permitted" to make it easier to start raising oysters - either on the bottom or in floats on the water. Though given rights to use the bay for 20 years, leaseholders would be required to use their leases or risk losing them.

The bay's watermen traditionally have opposed any significant expansion of private leasing of the bay, fearing it would deprive them of the ability to pluck wild oysters from the most productive reefs. But with most wild oysters gone, at least some watermen are beginning to eye private aquaculture as a means of continuing to make a living from the bay.

"We don't have nowhere else to turn," said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. With the decline of the public fishery, and the state's ability to support it, he said that "if we don't do something ourselves, it ain't going to happen."

Simns said watermen remain wary. They want an opportunity or even guarantee they'll be able to get good leases, he said. They also want to be shown that they can make money raising oysters rather than roaming the bay to harvest what nature produces. He argued that the oyster diseases remain the biggest hurdle to large-scale aquaculture.

Waterfront property owners also may resist an expansion of aquaculture. Some have objected at times to private oyster floats or clam beds along the shore, where they complain they are unsightly and impede boating.

State officials say the legislation would bar leases within 50 feet of the shoreline or a pier, or in narrow creeks, coves or inlets - a provision meant to address landowner complaints.

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