Bay Journal

Changes loom for Maryland’s oyster management

DNR chief says five-year review may lead to "mid-course corrections," reopening some sanctuaries for watermen to harvest

  • By Timothy B. Wheeler on July 23, 2016
Shells containing juvenile oysters, or

Maryland is preparing to change the way it manages oysters in its portion of the Chesapeake Bay – though what changes state managers will make and where they will make them remain to be seen.

Next week, the Department of Natural Resources is expected to release its assessment of the state’s large oyster sanctuary network.  The “five-year review,” as the report has been dubbed, also takes stock of how the public fishery and oyster farming have fared since 2010, when former Gov. Martin O’Malley took vast areas out of the wild harvest while opening up other, previously restricted bars to private lease for aquaculture.

Conservationists and biologists praised the move at the time, saying that sanctuaries would give the Bay’s decimated oyster population a chance to recover from historical overharvesting, water pollution and disease.  Oysters are a vital part of the Bay ecosystem, as they help filter the water and their reefs provide food and shelter for many other fish and marine organisms.

But watermen vehemently opposed the sanctuary expansion, complaining that the governor took away many of their best harvest areas, leaving the bivalves in them vulnerable to disease and pollution. As one waterman put it, sanctuaries are where oyster go to die.

Last winter, watermen persuaded Maryland’s new governor, Larry Hogan, to halt federally funded reef construction in one sanctuary in the Tred Avon River.  And they’ve repeatedly said they hope Hogan, a Republican who pledged to end what he called the O’Malley administration’s “war on watermen,” will re-open at least some now-closed areas to harvest.

Earlier this week, at a media event near Cambridge, Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton said the report finds evidence that at least some sanctuaries are functioning as planned.

“I think we’re seeing indications of success in the public sanctuaries,” he said, “and the review is going to show that.”

“Five years in an ecosystem that’s so dynamic, it’s hard to judge success,” Belton said. “That being said, indications are good.”

Under O’Malley, the state set aside 24 percent of the remaining viable oyster bottom for sanctuaries. Even with fewer areas to harvest, watermen saw their catch jump to 400,000 bushels by 2014. The harvest has dipped some since then, officials say, which was expected because there hasn’t been good natural reproduction in the Maryland portion of the Bay for several years now.  But in the meantime, oyster farming has begun to take off, with 50,000 bushels harvested from privately leased waters last year.

Even with those positive signs, Belton said, there’s still room for what he called “mid-course corrections.”

Belton made his remarks after taking a cruise on the Choptank River near Cambridge to observe the “planting” of more than 10 million juvenile oysters on a reef that’s worked every fall and winter by watermen.  The “spat,” as they are known, were produced at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s oyster hatchery at Horn Point, and then transported to the reef by a vessel owned by the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership.

The state spent $735,000 last year to produce 198 million young oysters at the hatchery for future harvest by watermen, according to Chris Judy, who oversees DNR’s shellfish programs. Watermen themselves contribute to the effort, by paying a $1 per bushel tax on what they harvest, though state funds make up the difference.

Belton said such plantings serve a double goal, of providing a sustainable, abundant fishery and also helping improve Bay’s ecological health.

“The two are not mutually exclusive,” he said.

Ben Parks, a Dorchester County waterman, who transported Belton and the journalists aboard his boat to view the planting, said it would help ensure a livelihood for local watermen. Hatchery-bred bivalves are needed, explained Donald Meritt, who runs the Horn Point hatchery, because the “brood stock” of reproducing oysters is depleted and with lower salinity, their reproductive success has generally been poor.

“If we didn’t do this, there would be no oyster season up here in the Choptank for the guys,” said Parks, who is a member of the DNR’s recently revived oyster advisory commission.  The department overhauled the panel’s membership, removing most of those appointed by O’Malley and greatly expanding the number of watermen and seafood industry representatives on it.

Belton said he ask the new advisory commission members their opinions about the sanctuaries. 

Maryland pledged under the O’Malley administration to try large-scale restoration of oyster populations in five different Bay tributaries, and so far has targeted three.  Harris Creek is essentially finished, while work is only partially completed in the Little Choptank River and just begun in the Tred Avon.

The Hogan administration remains committed to doing restoration work in five tributaries, Belton said. But the DNR wants to rethink how to proceed in three areas, he said.

First, the state must advise the Army Corps of Engineers, which is handling the Tred Avon restoration, whether to proceed as originally planned or revise the project. The Corps already revised the project once in response to watermen’s complaints, reducing its use of stone for reef construction. The Corps has said it needs to get a green light by Aug. 5 to get the work on the next eight acres of reef work contracted in time to meet budgetary requirements.

The advisory panel is scheduled to take up the Tred Avon issue at a meeting Monday.

In seeking a halt to the Tred Avon restoration, watermen had argued that despite extensive reef construction and planting of hatchery-reared oysters in Harris Creek, another Choptank tributary, reproduction there lagged behind nearby Broad Creek, where watermen were still fishing.

The watermen took their complaints straight to Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford after Belton and his scientists did not agree to halt the project. But they focused on only one thing in comparing the two creeks -  the rate at which spat had settled on their respective oyster reefs. Broad Creek historically had better spat sets than Harris Creek, even before the latter was closed to harvesting.

But scientists actually had agreed before the restoration began to judge sanctuary success on other “metrics,” such as how oysters are building up reefs and attracting other marine life. Those have been documented byunderwater video taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Maryland and suggest Harris Creek has been succeeding on both levels.

The DNR’s review of the Tred Avon, which was released in advance of the rest of the full report for the advisory commission’s benefit, finds that oysters there have grown larger since being set aside as a sanctuary, and disease mortality remains low.  Sixteen acres of reefs have been built there so far, out of a total of 147 acres planned for restoration.

(A review of Harris Creek by NOAA, meanwhile, also found evidence the hatchery-produced bivalves there are thriving.  At least 30 percent of the 102 acres of reefs planted in 2012 had the minimum desired density of oysters, while another 30 percent had the target density of more than 50 bivalves per square meter, according to NOAA. Harris Creek has been the largest restoration effort by far to date, with more than 350 acres of reef restored, with two billion oyster spat planted there.)

Belton said the DNR wants the panel to recommend the next two tributaries to be targeted for restoration. But in a memo to the commission, he cautioned that with future federal and state funding uncertain, members ought to look for areas where oysters could be replenished “with minimal taxpayer expense.”  The Harris Creek restoration, for example, cost about $27 million, and the projected budget for work on the first three tributaries tops $40 million in combined federal and state funds.

With the first three tributaries all located in the Choptank watershed, Belton also suggested that future restoration projects be sited elsewhere “so as not to disproportionately impact the mid-Shore area.”

As for the rest, Belton said the Hogan administration remains committed to maintaining 20 to 30 percent of the viable oyster habitat as sanctuaries, as recommended by an environmental assessment years ago. But he said he is open to considering re-opening closed areas that are “not doing as well as they should.”  For example, he added, if a sanctuary lacks oysters, maybe it could be replenished with a combination of public and private investment and then placed in “rotational harvest,” in which the reefs would only be open for watermen to take oysters every few years and closed for recovery at other times.

“Those are innovative ways that have been tried in other places,” the DNR secretary said.

His remarks appear to echo those of watermen, who say they prefer the rotational harvest regime used in Virginia. They also argue that since many of the 51 sanctuaries haven’t undergone reef restoration or spat plantings, they ought to be returned to the wild fishery.

Watermen question the value of sanctuaries, arguing that they show no better reproduction than areas open to harvest. They contend the restoration effort should focus on areas with marginal oyster populations, rather than take reefs that still have decent numbers of bivalves on them. Before O’Malley’s plans, the oyster sanctuaries that did exist in the Chesapeake were small, barren patches that watermen didn’t want. Only nine percent of the oysters were in sanctuaries then; for several years, NOAA operated a program called “managed reserves,” where they would plant oysters that watermen could harvest after agreeing to leave them in the water until they reached four inches, instead of the usual three. Eventually, that size limit was reduced, and the managed reserves became similar to regular harvest bars.

At a meeting of the advisory commission last week, Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, complained that his members are bearing an unfair burden for the Bay’s restoration.  According to DNR minutes of the meeting, Brown, a member of the advisory panel, said that Virginia has set aside just 155 acres as sanctuaries for its share of the bi-state oyster restoration strategy, a far smaller area than has been targeted so far in Maryland.

Bill Goldsborough, a senior fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, welcomed Belton’s general guidance to the advisory commission, of which he is also a member.  But he suggested the secretary’s apparent willingness to reduce sanctuaries was short-sighted.

Scientists predict that as oysters become more abundant in sanctuaries, they will eventually spread their through natural reproduction, benefiting the Bay in general as well as watermen who could harvest those offspring that settled beyond the sanctuary borders.

“Why is this only about opening sanctuaries to harvest?” Goldsborough asked in an email. “It’s not just about how much we can stomach closing areas to harvest – it is about rebuilding this valuable resource for all the other ways it provides benefits -- AND, one of those benefits is establishing a powerful reproductive engine locally, which means in this case that the Choptank system will have three powerful spawning areas that will help repopulate harvest areas there as well as sanctuaries.”


Oysters tend to reproduce better in the saltier waters in Virginia’s portion of the Bay.  Maryland needs to augment nature by planting hatchery-reared oysters, but Goldsborough said he’s confident the effort will pay off in time, if the state stays the course. Restored sanctuaries can fuel a broader rebound in bivalves, he predicted.

“How will local residents, watermen and citizens alike, feel about their sanctuaries then?” Goldsborough asked. “Bottom line: we need to take a broader, longer term view of this work.”

About Timothy B. Wheeler
Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Timothy B. Wheeler

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