Stop The Oyster Harvest

Md. Needs To Take A Rational Approach - For Once - To Managing The Chesapeake

August 11, 2009|By Robert Wieland

In 1983, Vic Kennedy and Linda Breisch published a paper in the Journal of Environmental Management called "Sixteen Decades of Political Management of the Oyster Fishery in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay." For any Marylander who likes oysters, the paper is a depressing read, documenting the failed attempts to change the way oysters are managed in the state. Time and again, efforts to introduce more rational policies have been overwhelmed by tidewater legislators.

Amazingly, those political influences still persist, even as the oyster fishery shrinks to near zero.

Several months ago, I spoke up at a meeting in Cambridge about whether to introduce a non-native oyster species to the bay. I argued in favor of a moratorium on harvests and, to the watermen's credit, they let me say my piece.

When I left, a fellow stopped me in the hall and asked this rhetorical question. "What self-respecting group of Americans is going to get together and say, 'Hey, come take my livelihood away?'" I was taken aback by his frankness.

He could understand that it might be better to close the fishery for a time so that stocks could rebuild, but his loyalty was to his profession.

My argument for closing the oyster fishery was based on research that asked the question, what maximizes the value of the oyster resource, harvesting them aggressively now, or closing down the fishery, and letting stocks rebuild? This work was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay Office and it suggested that allowing stocks to rebuild by limiting harvests, the one mortality factor over which we have any control, would generate net economic benefits, even considering the capital costs of idling the harvest fleet. If we include the value of the ecological services that oysters deliver, the benefits from restricting harvest effort become even greater.

In a 2008 report, the Oyster Advisory Commission could not quite bring itself to recommend a moratorium on harvests. But it did recommend closing down a large river system and focusing stock rebuilding efforts there. It also recommended limiting harvest effort baywide. Either of those policies would entail a radical departure from the way that DNR has managed oyster harvests in the past. Could it be that a new day is dawning for oyster management in Maryland?

I can think of two ways this might change. First, DNR might accept empirical evidence showing that leaving the fishery open to unrestrained harvests will, under current conditions, lead to diminished value from the resource. In the interest of the watermen that they serve, DNR would then restrict harvests to increase the longer term value of the resource. Or, two, the voting public might take a sufficient interest in the issue to ask their legislators to compel DNR to manage the oyster resource as if next year matters.

We shall see how all of this unfolds as DNR and the lobbying groups gear up for the 2010 legislative session. I don't know how that will go, but I have a sense of foreboding.

The political influences that Kennedy and Breisch described 26 years ago are still at work and we can now talk about 18-1/2 decades of political management of the oyster fishery. But, we also can all clearly see the possibility of a Chesapeake Bay without standing stocks of oysters, if we continue down this path. Maybe that will make a difference.

Robert Wieland is a resource economist working to expand the application of economic analysis in environmental decision-making. His e-mail is Robert.wie article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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