A sour oyster stew

Our view: The Chesapeake Bay's oyster population is threatened enough without watermen stealing bivalves from protected sanctuaries

May 10, 2011

Maryland is heavily invested in restoring the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population, as well it should be. The tasty bivalves are not only prized by epicures and the watermen who harvest them but also by all those who care about the bay's health because, as filter feeders, oysters remove excess nutrients from the water.

So recent estimates by state officials — as reported this week by the University of Maryland's student-staffed Capital News Service — that perhaps one-third (and possibly as much as 80 percent) of the oysters set aside in protected sanctuary beds are being harvested illegally are absolutely infuriating. It's a practice that must be stopped immediately.

Taxpayers spend about $1.5 million each year to raise oysters at an Eastern Shore hatchery to supply nursery beds in the hope that they might supplement natural reproduction and eventually help the species bounce back.

Leaving such sanctuaries off-limits to allow the oysters to mature and spawn is an essential part of the process. Otherwise, planting young oysters, or spat, amounts to nothing more than supplying a put-and-take industry. It's like Perdue sending chicks to be raised in chicken houses, only with taxpayers doing the supplying and poachers getting all the benefits.

With this news coming so swiftly on the heels of all those thousands of pounds of striped bass caught in illegal nets in the Chesapeake Bay this spring, Marylanders are left to wonder: Are there any honest watermen left on the bay? No doubt, the perpetrators are a relatively small group, but the damage they are doing to their industry — and their venerable profession's reputation — is substantial.

What's particularly troubling about the oyster theft is that consumers rely on watermen to harvest oysters from designated areas not only for the sake of the environment but for health and safety reasons, too. Some oyster beds are protected because of high bacteria counts in the water, often because of sewage runoff.

Consuming oysters from such polluted waters poses a serious health threat. If watermen are willing to harvest from a sanctuary bed, what's to prevent them from taking oysters from a bed that's been closed because of pollution?

This is not the first time that oyster poaching has been brought to the attention of state officials. Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly approved stiffer penalties for those caught taking oysters illegally in response to concerns over theft.

But with far fewer Natural Resources police patrolling Maryland waters than in years past due to state budget cuts, one has to wonder how much good that will do. Authorities have yet to file charges in the rockfish incidents.

There are two potential solutions to oyster poaching. The one endorsed by Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, would require all workboats to be outfitted with GPS systems that would allow the state to monitor their comings and goings. This idea holds promise. In theory, the registered vessels could be tracked 24/7 — a potentially costly and invasive solution, but an effective one.

The alternative would be to close the fishery to the harvest of wild oysters entirely, at least until the population rebounds sufficiently. Some might even suggest closing the fishery is overdue, given that today's oyster population is about 1 percent of its historical numbers.

What's clear is that the current situation is unacceptable. Chesapeake Bay oysters are a public resource, and taking them illegally amounts to stealing from all of us. That taxpayers are so heavily invested in oyster restoration just adds salt to the wound.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources ought to move forward with devising a GPS system along the lines of what the state already uses to track MTA buses. But if that doesn't prove feasible, or the poaching continues, closing the commercial fishery ought to be considered, too. The bay's diminished oyster population is simply too endangered to tolerate this kind of blatant thievery any longer.

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