An oyster plan Maryland needs

DNR proposal’s mix of aquaculture and public fishery would bring state’s practices into line with rest of the world

April 08, 2010|By Victor Kennedy and Roger Newell

The Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan proposed by the state Department of Natural Resources sets a new direction for managing Maryland's natural oyster populations and enhancing opportunities for farming oysters. Thus, it brings the state's oyster management efforts more in line with virtually all other regions in the world.

The plan is based on the recommendations of an advisory committee of scientists, watermen, legislators, economists, environmentalists and seafood industry representatives. It is long overdue because Maryland's once-bountiful oyster stocks have declined ruinously over the last 130 years. Over this period, the natural desire of watermen to maintain income from harvest and their ability to garner political support have continuously eclipsed science as the driving force in oyster management. Such political interference is one important reason that Maryland has not yet achieved a sustainable oyster population.

The Maryland Senate recently amended an oyster poaching bill (SB 342) to delay for a year the ability of fisheries managers to designate oyster sanctuaries — a vital part of the proposed plan — indicating that once again, political forces are threatening much-needed modernization of oyster stock management. Having passed the Senate, this bill will likely be considered by the House this weekend.

It is instructive to review some history. In 1701, a Swiss visitor reported that Chesapeake oysters were so abundant that ships sometimes ran aground on oyster reefs, and so large that they had to be cut in two to be eaten. Over time, Maryland's oyster industry grew until the landings in the 1880s were twice those of the rest of the world combined. However, about that time annual harvests began to decline, causing much consternation.

An Oyster Commission formed in 1882 to study the problem linked the harvest decline to overfishing, diminishing amounts of settlement material (shell) and destruction of oyster spat by harvest practices. Among other recommendations, the commission called for a reliance on trained experts — not politicians — to close oyster beds where and when necessary to allow for rehabilitation. It also recommended a system of private oyster farming on bottoms leased from the state to supplement the public fishery.

Unfortunately, there was no political will to implement these two conservation measures. These recommendations (and similar recommendations by a number of later commissions) were not followed, and more than a century later this same debate is again taking place in Annapolis.

Because of this history, Maryland is unique with regard to its oyster industry. While more than 90 percent of the oysters landed around the world are the result of some type of oyster farming, in Maryland the oyster is predominantly hunted by watermen. By contrast, the industry in Louisiana, which provided about 40 percent of U.S. oyster landings before recent hurricanes, is a mix of private oyster culture (about 8,000 leases on about 400,000 acres of bottom) and public harvests. In fact, many Louisiana watermen who harvest public beds also work their own privately leased bottom, showing that one can be both a hunter and a farmer of oysters. In Connecticut, more than 70,000 acres of oyster farms co-exist with public beds and support more 300 jobs. Similar examples of a public-private mix could be drawn from Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

The proposed plan encouraging oyster cultivation in Maryland represents a long-term, holistic approach to restoring bay oyster populations and the public fishery. By encouraging private oyster culture efforts while retaining more than three-quarters of oyster bottom for public harvest, we can support those watermen who wish to make a transition to aquaculture. Because such mixed fishery initiatives work well elsewhere, the plan should benefit the industry, including watermen.

The plan's scientific foundation is strong and its goals achievable, provided we can muster the political will to allow it time to mature. By incorporating lessons learned from past mistakes, relying on sound science and trusting our natural resource professionals, we will start a process that should eventually rebuild Maryland's oyster stocks.

Victor Kennedy (kennedy@hpl.umces.edu) and Roger Newell (rnewell@hpl.umces.edu) are marine biologists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge.

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