Oyster Turning Point

Our View: State Plan To Protect Oysters, Promote Aquaculture Is The Right Course, Even If It Means The End To Maryland's Tradition Of Watermen As We Know Them

December 07, 2009

Gov. Martin O'Malley's decision to set aside some of the Chesapeake Bay's most productive oyster beds as sanctuaries and spend millions of dollars on developing oyster farming in the state could prove the most positive development for the imperiled Maryland oyster in decades.

The plan announced Thursday by the governor is long overdue. Maryland's oyster harvests have fallen from millions of bushels a generation ago to about 100,000 today. Declining water quality, years of excessive harvest and parasitic diseases that attack the shellfish but pose no danger to humans have taken their toll.

Treating the oyster as a public fishery had long passed the point of economic viability. While the image of hardy Maryland oystermen tonging or dredging oysters out on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries during the coldest months of the year represents an old and cherished tradition in this state, times and circumstances have changed considerably.

What the governor intends to do is what should have been done long before anyone ever pondered (and wisely rejected) the risky choice of importing Asian oysters to the region as a replacement species.

Instead, roughly one-quarter of what many decades of research have demonstrated to be the best shellfish beds - in some cases, whole creeks and rivers - will be set aside so that oysters can prosper, reproduce and better establish their populations without ending up on the deck of a waterman's boat.

That is not only good for reviving the native population but for the larger ecosystem as well. As filter feeders, oysters cleanse the water of the excess nutrients that have caused much of the bay's pollution problems. A thriving bivalve population promotes underwater grasses and higher dissolved oxygen levels.

Not surprisingly, many watermen aren't happy with this proposal. They see the state abandoning their way of life and feel victimized. But they are also in a distinct minority: An industry that once supported thousands has been whittled down to about 200 people harvesting part-time.

Mr. O'Malley expressed hope that many of them can be employed in the fledgling aquaculture industry. On leased areas of bay, river or creek bottom, the mollusks can be cultivated in a manner that allows them to grow faster, be less susceptible to disease and be harvested year-round.

Around the world, this is how oysters are generally produced, and experts believe Maryland could support a $25 million industry. But first, it will require training and investment - a cause for which $2.5 million has been committed over the next several years.

Make no mistake, the transition will not be easy. It's not yet clear what technology will be employed (there are numerous variations), or whether the industry will be mom-and-pop, involve watermen (who historically prefer the freedom of the hunter-gatherer life to that of a farmer), or be taken over by a large-scale producer.

But this much is clear: Maryland could no longer continue to neglect oysters by preserving the status quo. The plan Mr. O'Malley has embraced will ensure that future generations will have an opportunity to appreciate the Chesapeake Bay oyster and that its important role in the bay's habitat will be preserved.

To adapt to this new reality, watermen will have to make changes. But far better to do so now than wait until the last native oyster is taken.

Readers respond

Congratulations to Gov. Martin O'Malley for his leadership in attempting to replenish our beloved Chesapeake Bay oyster population. Closing numerous rivers to oyster harvesting is a stupendous stride in restocking the bivalve. This is a pleasant surprise and a nice win for the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.

As usual, we can heed the familiar rhetoric from Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns and his posse. A career change will serve your watermen well, Mr. Simns. Everyone wins.

Mike Ludwitzke, Baltimore

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