Oysters vs. oystermen?

Maryland should try harder to preserve both a healthy bay and a way of life

February 07, 2010|By Christopher White

A watershed moment in Maryland history unfolded last month when Chesapeake Bay watermen marched on Annapolis to protest Gov. Martin O'Malley's Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan. At stake was whether the bay's shellfish beds will continue to be in the public domain - a public fishery - or whether they will be reassigned, in whole or in part, as private leases available for aquaculture.

Unfortunately, this issue is typically presented as a choice between preserving the watermen's way of life and promoting oyster restoration and aquaculture. Too little attention is given to the possibility of a solution that achieves both objectives.

The watermen's most immediate concern is that their most efficient methods of harvesting oysters - patent tonging and power dredging - will be banned. For this reason, the oystermen support a pre-emptive bill sponsored by Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican, that would protect these harvest techniques in perpetuity. What's most remarkable about the measure and the march is not that the watermen are up in arms about losing their livelihood, but that they've locked arms - exercising their right of free assembly.

Watermen are known to be highly independent and iconoclastic. One fishing town will contain many divergent opinions on subjects ranging from seafood prices to politics. Watermen are unlikely to rally around a single cause or a single spokesman. The Maryland Watermen's Association has only around 200 members, out of a potential pool of 6,000 licensed commercial fishermen. Every other man perhaps prefers his own voice.

However, the political landscape in Maryland has changed. More than 150 watermen gave up a day's work and income to travel to Annapolis to endorse the Colburn bill and to protest Mr. O'Malley's plan. Recently, at least two new watermen's groups have been formed: the Maryland Oystermen Association and the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association. Watermen are suddenly joining the movement to keep the public fisheries open and their gear intact. With a unified voice will come the political clout that watermen previously found wanting.

There are, of course, many types of harvest techniques on public oyster bars. In Maryland, five gear types are employed: patent tonging, power dredging, diving, hand tonging and sail dredging from skipjacks. The latter two modes are inefficient and were the only choice for more than a century.

In 1865, the Maryland legislature passed a sail-only law for dredging oysters, one of the earliest conservation statutes in the country. This law prompted the development of the bugeye and the skipjack to dredge oysters in shallow waters under sail power. It remained unchanged on the books until 1967, when it was modified to allow power dredging from a skipjack for two days a week. Then, in 1999, the law was completely overturned to allow power dredging from regular workboats (without sails), which is one of the efficient methods currently on the block.

The demonstrators claim modern power dredging is good for the oyster beds, cleaning them of silt and exposing shells. Others claim it causes damage to the beds and, being too efficient, promotes over-harvesting. Patent tonging with hydraulics has been allowed since the 1950s and has contributed to overfishing and to reducing the stocks and crop to 1 percent of former levels. Some old-time watermen would like to see a return to inefficient harvests - a public fishery restricted to hand tonging and sail dredging. But not the men marching on Annapolis.

Larger issues are at stake: If Governor O'Malley succeeds at shutting down the public fishery so that only oyster farming is permitted, then the question of gear type becomes moot. The watermen and the wild fishery would be out of business.

Some elements of the governor's plan are worthwhile, especially the expansion of oyster sanctuaries to 24 percent of the oyster grounds. However, he hasn't made the case for why aquaculture must be broadened to the exclusion of a wild harvest. Perhaps he can't.

Why not explore a path to compatibility? By designating some of Maryland waters as public, some as private and some as sanctuaries, aquaculturists and fishermen could work side by side. This could be the watermen's last, best hope for survival.

Christopher White is the author of "Skipjack: The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen."

He can be contacted through his Web site, www.skipjackthebook.com.


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