Oyster restoration plan to be launched

Maryland to expand sanctuaries, open bay for more shellfish farming

May 21, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Vowing to restore the Chesapeake Bay's disease-ravaged oysters and the industry that once thrived on them, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Friday that he would proceed with a plan to more than double the state's network of oyster sanctuaries while offering to lease vast areas of the bay for private aquaculture.

Speaking to a crowd of state officials, environmentalists and others at the Annapolis Maritime Museum — site of the last oyster packing house to close in the capital — O'Malley called the regulations he plans to propose next week "the turning point" in the long, troubled history of the bay's iconic bivalve and of the state's seafood industry.

"We can create jobs in aquaculture, we can help this resource grow, and as it grows, we are also going to clean up the waters of this bay," O'Malley said.

"I am sure we're seeing the dawn of a new day for oysters in Maryland," said William Eichbaum, chairman of the state's oyster advisory commission and vice president for marine issues of the World Wildlife Fund.

The head of the Maryland Oystermen Association, however, warned that the state's move threatens the livelihood of the few hundred watermen still actively harvesting oysters because it would bar them from working many of the most productive shellfish bars or reefs left in the bay. Jim Mullin, the group's executive director, also questioned the shift to aquaculture, calling it an unproven experiment in the state.

Under the rules, the state would expand the areas in the bay and its tributaries where harvesting is off-limits from 9 percent of the remaining viable oyster habitat to 25 percent. At the same time, about 600,000 acres of water would be offered for lease to anyone who wants to try raising the shellfish. About 168,000 acres of natural oyster bars or reefs — including about three-quarters of the best remaining habitat — would still be available for watermen to harvest.

First unveiled in December, the plan has been tweaked after months of meetings with watermen, scientists and the public. But its general thrust, essentially unchanged, represents a major shift away from more than a century of state management focused on maintaining a wild oyster fishery in Maryland. It's also a switch from the effort by O'Malley's predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., to introduce disease-resistant Asian oysters into the bay — a move sought by the seafood industry but spiked by O'Malley after scientists and environmentalists warned it risked ecological havoc.

State officials, scientists and environmentalists said the change was long overdue and needed to restore the bay. They acknowledged, however, that restoring the bay's oysters could be a drawn-out, costly undertaking and far from assured.

"We can't tell you it's a sure shot, but we can tell you it's the only shot," said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Oysters play an important ecological role, filtering the water and providing habitat for other aquatic creatures. But the bay's oyster population today has dwindled to just 1 percent of historic levels, as overharvesting, habitat loss and disease have taken their toll. Commercial harvests have fallen by 90 percent over the past 25 years, from more than 2 million bushels to a little more than 100,000 bushels the season before last. The past season's catch has yet to be tallied.

The number of watermen harvesting oysters also has shrunk from 4,000 in 1990 to 651 this past season, with just 389 reporting any catch. Officials have estimated previously that only 200 or so oyster full-time. The number of oyster processing businesses likewise has dwindled over the past three decades from 58 to just eight.

Despite spending more than $40 million in federal and state funds over the past 16 years — three-fourths of that to help out the public fishery — neither the oyster population nor the industry has rebounded. A pair of diseases known as Dermo and MSX have destroyed the bay's oysters since the 1980s, often killing them just as they grow large enough to harvest. Three-fourths of the bay's historic oyster reefs have been lost as well, smothered in silt or eroded.

The governor said he hoped emphasizing aquaculture and ecological restoration would bring about the same kind of revival of oysters that appears to be happening with blue crabs, which have rebounded from perilously low levels after two years of harsh catch restrictions. The crabbing cutback was unpopular with watermen — just as this plan is.

"The men won't have anywhere to work to continue to make a livelihood," said Mullin. He contended that "they're taking the best of the best" of the remaining oyster reefs.

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