Bay Journal

MD Assembly votes to block opening oyster sanctuaries to harvest

Watermen wanted access to poorly performing protected areas; environmentalists opposed move until population study completed

  • By Timothy B. Wheeler on March 28, 2017
Oysters grow on reef in sanctuary in St. Mary's River in Southern Maryland. (Dave Harp)

Maryland lawmakers voted Tuesday to temporarily block any changes to the state’s oyster sanctuaries, effectively halting a move by the Hogan administration to open some of them to commercial harvest next fall.

By a vote of 32 to 14, the Senate gave final approval to a bill barring adjustments to sanctuary boundaries until the Department of Natural Resources finishes an assessment of the state’s oyster population, expected late next year.

The same measure passed the House two weeks ago, 102-39, so it now goes to Gov. Larry Hogan. Once it reaches his desk, he has six days to sign or veto it, or let it become law without his signature. Though his administration opposed the bill, it received enough votes in each chamber to override his veto.

Environmentalists hailed the vote, saying it headed off what they considered a premature move to open sanctuaries before state fisheries managers have figured out how much harvest pressure Maryland’s oyster population can handle.

Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called it “a very important step for oyster recovery in the Bay.” Oysters, she said, are the state’s only fishery without a stock assessment or a full management plan to ensure it is sustainable. Over watermen’s objections, the General Assembly last year directed the DNR to assess the status of the state’s oyster population and determine a sustainable harvest level, which would be due by Dec. 1, 2018.

“This bill makes sure we have that before we make any changes to our protective policy for the sanctuaries,” Prost said.

But Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton issued a statement saying he was disappointed that lawmakers had acted on behalf of “special interest groups” to “upend” the work of the 24-member Oyster Advisory Commission he had appointed last year. That group, about half of its members representing or sympathetic to the oyster industry, has been meeting since July and discussing possible changes to the state’s management of its sanctuaries, its public fishery and restoration efforts.

Belton said the legislature’s vote “demonstrates a disdain of the commission’s progress and for science itself.”

Last year, a five-year review by the DNR staff concluded that while oysters appeared to be doing well on many of the sanctuaries, others were not meeting expectations for survival or reproduction and might be candidates for opening to harvest. But the report also noted that five years was too short a time to evaluate the overall performance of the sanctuaries, and that there was little or no data on which to make a judgement.

Watermen have been lobbying the Hogan administration to revisit the 2010 decision by former Gov. Martin O’Malley to provide more refuges for the Bay’s depleted oyster population which, because of overharvesting, habitat loss and disease, is now estimated to be less than 1 percent of historic levels. O’Malley, stressing the need to protect oysters for their ecological value as natural water filters and habitat for other fish and crabs, expanded the state’s sanctuaries to encompass 24 percent of the viable oyster habitat in the Maryland portion of the Bay. Watermen say the expansion deprived them of some of their best harvest areas, and they’ve stepped up their appeals this year, because a flare-up of oyster diseases has contributed to a slump in the harvest this season.

Last month, the DNR staff, drawing on proposals from county watermen’s committees and from environmental groups, presented a draft plan that would declassify all or portions of seven of the state’s 51 sanctuaries, while creating three new protected areas and expanding four existing ones. But the net effect of the changes would shrink the acreage of oysters protected from harvest by 11 percent.

In those opened sanctuaries, watermen had pledged to invest funds allotted to them by the state to build up and seed the reefs with hatchery-spawned oysters, then to harvest them four years later on a “rotational” basis.

But the plan provoked an outcry among environmentalists, who contended the sanctuaries shouldn’t be touched until more was known about the status of the oyster population and the impact of the annual commercial harvest.

“You can’t go back,’’ Prost said. “Once these sanctuaries were open to harvest, it would not take more than a few weeks of the season to decimate the structures that may be there or the oysters that may be on the recovery path.”

Eastern Shore senators tried to blunt the impact of the legislation with a series of amendments that would have left room for the DNR to make at least some changes to sanctuaries. Oysters can’t make it on their own, they argued, so need the kind of management watermen could provide.

“We have distressed sanctuaries,” said Sen. Adelaide Eckardt, a Republican representing the mid-Shore. “Without adequate investment in any of the bottom, we will not grow oysters.”

But Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who is chair of the committee that heard the bill, countered that the DNR stock assessment is needed to identify sanctuaries that are faltering as well as public fishery areas. At her urging, all the Shore lawmakers’ amendments were soundly defeated.

Belton had appealed to lawmakers to let the commission continue its work without interference and try to work out a plan that everyone could accept. At the commission’s last meeting March 21, Belton had said his staff would revise its earlier draft to try to respond to complaints from both environmentalists and watermen.

"Today's vote was based on fear, not the facts," the natural resources secretary said.

But Prost countered that the vote assured that the DNR would have more facts before it decided the fate of the state’s sanctuaries.

“Once we know how many oysters are out there and have actual management strategies based on that stock assessment, then we can discuss if these fallow sanctuaries ... could be opened up and made productive,” she said. “But we don’t know how many oysters are in the Bay, how many can be taken out every year (or) how many acres really need to be in sanctuary.”

UPDATE: Jeff Harrison, president of the Talbot Waterman's Association and a member of the Oyster Advisory Commission, called the bill's passage a "detriment" to the panel's work.  He said the panel was simply trying to follow the guidelines set in 2010 when the sanctuary system was expanded, to review the protected areas' performance and use "adaptive management."

"This basically means that if something isn't working, instead of doing the same thing, we should try something different," Harrison said.

Of 28 sanctuaries regularly monitored by the DNR, he said, the department's five-year review found that 75 percent either had the same or lower abundance of oysters. The advisory commission was talking about opening some, he noted, so the industry could try restocking them with shell and seed oysters and then subjecting them to a rotational harvest every four years.  Harrison cited as an example a sanctuary in the upper Chester River, one of those sanctuaries that has had no work done on it since 2010 and that the DNR review found has lower abundance and biomass since then. Harrison contended the upper Chester would have been a prime spot to try the watermen's plan for rotational harvest. With the bill's passage, it can't be tried now, which he said "as far as I am concerned, (is) a loss for the State and the Chester River."

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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David Zajano on March 29, 2017:

I find it ironic that commercial watermen have yet to come to the realization that left too make their own rules they probably would have put themselves out of business a generation or two ago. Many of them publically proclaim a proud heritage of coming from generations of fishers, but then state that they will probably be the last member in their families to make a living by harvesting the bounty of the bay. The simple fact of the matter is that they fish for a species for as long as they can make a profit off of it. When a species migrates elsewhere, becomes too scarce to make a profit, or is closed by regulation, they move on to a different target. But their basic business plan is one of harvesting a public resource that belongs to everyone, not just their lineage, until it is depleted or closed by regulation. They do nothing to replenish the resources they harvest. Without the degree of fisheries regulations which we currently have I wonder what we would find the shelves in a seafood market or what recreational fishers would target today. I'm betting striped bass and blue crabs wouldn't be on either list. Oyster populations have been less than 1% of the peak historic population in the bay for some time now. Oyster harvest levels dropped precipitously. Measurements were taken to try to reverse this trend including the establishment of oyster sanctuaries. More than $30 million has been spent on the Harris Creek sanctuary alone. The result has been a modest increase in oyster harvest levels in Maryland the past few years, but more than 500 new licenses were added to the pool of those allowed to commercially harvest oysters. Now oystermen say they can't make sustainable living by harvesting the existing public oyster grounds which is their justification for wanting to raid the sanctuaries. "Conservationists" are simply asking that scientific principles be the guiding force behind our fisheries management rather than wishful thinking and greed.

Clean Chesapeake Coalition (by Chip MacLeod) on March 29, 2017:

A pyrrhic victory at the expense of collaboration, adaptive management and oysters…HB924 was nothing but a bone thrown to CBF and CCA in their rabid and orchestrated quest to thin the herd of seafood harvesters in the Chesapeake Bay. Just follow the money from big energy/oil to NGOs that are hostile to commercial fisheries. The architects of the unmanaged sanctuary program and the champions of the status quo will own all the oyster mortality in the next couple of years – which will not be due to harvesting. With the 5-year sanctuary report (July 2016) in hand and the annual fall survey reports by DNR on oyster population, there is already sufficient information to implement a prudent fishery management plan.

Jim Reihl on March 30, 2017:

The passing of this bill only reinforces that the last thing on the senators and delegates minds is the health of the oyster in the bay. They are only worried about the votes they can get from the special interest groups for re-election. Science has nothing to do with it. The CCA is supposed to stand for conservation however, there is no conservation in there minds only we want it all. Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been a farce and for many years. If a business has failed for more then 40 years (Chesapeake Bay Foundation), then it should have been out of business years ago. The bay was turned over to them for management and it has had a failing grade every year. What a good job they have done. But people keep lining their bank account with donations. As someone once said. "There is a sucker born every minute". The less then 1% of the population of oysters is something that the so called conservational and environmental people like to rally around however, it is not true. Oysters have made a comeback in recent years primarily due to power dredging which turns over the bars for more spat to set. When left alone, as the sanctuaries do the oysters will grow big and die. Older oysters are more subjective to disease and mortality (Dr. Don Bosh stated). The rotational harvest would help curve that. What I fail to understand is that the statement made by David Zajano that we harvest an area until it is depleted or closed by regulation and then do nothing to replenish the resource is without merit. There is no way in this world that you can take the last oyster (unless you are in aquaculture) and if he really knew what he was talking about, which he is clueless, then he would have had to know about the seed and shell program (not funded by taxpayers) that worked for more then 40 years but was abolished for so called "conservation and ecological" reasons and the program we have now where we buy spat on shell and replant every year on different bars. All without taxpayer money. But this is the perception that the uneducated public has because of what they read in the papers or see on the news. Watermen are always the bad guys and want to take it all for themselves however that is so far from the truth. If that is true, then why aren't we out of business. The science and reports that are already in hand state that something has to be done however lets keep studying the problem (money maker for some) until everyone gets tired of it.

Capt. Robert Newberry/Delmarva Fisheries Associati on March 30, 2017:

The politicizing of this valuable natural resource is the worst thing that could happen in the state of Maryland. The fact of the matter is the CBF and the CCA we're very upset that they couldn't get their way with the OAC so, they go to the legislators, imply they're deceptive techniques, get a bill drafted and circumnavigate the authority of the Department of Natural Resources. This now will set a new precedent for the ngos in Maryland to get what they want. Many many people including those from the industry and those from the environmental side spent many hours moving forward with a comprehensive plan to address the state of the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay. This bill was nothing but a slap in their face by several groups that didn't get their agenda moved in the direction and which the people that Finance them told them to take it. When you see the finances that drive these ngos in the direction that they are taking you can only sit back and be flabbergasted. It's not thousands, it's not Millions, it's hundreds of Millions and several offshore bank accounts in the Caribbean. The CCA and the CBF have had their way with a Department of Natural Resources for many years. Now that they are sitting on the bus and even seats with us in the industry and the department has taken the wheel back they are very uncomfortable. They need to understand that being on the same level as the industry now they must work with us in some form and manner for the most important thing a clean Bay and a strong Fishery. Since 2006 these two ngos have done nothing but generate funds to delay any Improvement to the natural resource and make it their main goal to put hard-working people out of business. Senator John Astle of Anne Arundel County made a statement at the end of the Senate hearing on HB 924. Referring to the Waterman as Buffalo Bill, killing all the buffalo on the Great Plains, and having to join the circus after eradicating all the buffalo. Evidently the senator is a poor historian. Buffalo Bill was hired by the government to exterminate the buffalo, the main food source for the Native Americans of the Plains, to drive them into submission through starvation. Maybe what the good Senator really meant that the legislators of Maryland were hired by these ngos to take away the authority of DNR to manage the oysters properly thus driving the Waterman of Maryland out of business. It's time for all of us to realize one thing, that the picking of the low-hanging fruit buy these ngos, and the fact that they are doing nothing to create a better environment other than spending taxpayers dollars to line their pockets must stop. They have become nothing but money generating organizations that are moving their agenda forward by putting hard-working people out of business, and deceiving the citizens of Maryland and the lawmakers of Maryland in this process.

John Smith on March 30, 2017:

If waterman are such great stewards of the water then why are they so intent to open up sanctuaries? Why are your public shellfish areas not flourishing under all you power dredges? Why not change some barren public harvesting areas into rotational planting/harvesting areas instead of opening up sanctuaries? When you go into a reef that might be stressed and has had a die-off in the summer, then harvest the only remaining live oysters there; the only thing you are accomplishing is removing the strong disease-resistant oysters from a reef. Those oysters that have the capability to repopulate the reef during the good years.

Mark on March 30, 2017:

Dump p gravel in the bay thats all oysters need . I did this at my place on hoopers 10 years ago and on low tide i walk out and pick up a bushel of nice delicious oysters any month i want as long as it has an (r) in it.

Ignatius Zephyr III on April 04, 2017:

Blaming watermen because biologist manager's regulations failed, implying NGOs are only after high executive salaries, fishermen are just capitalist exploiters of public resources? If the department of natural resources in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware can't work together with industry to fix a problem as simple as the Chesapeake Bay oyster fishery, then there is no chance at all for global warming.

Andrew Marani on April 05, 2017:

If it's science based management that is wanted, why are Belton and the watermen so opposed to waiting till the assessment comes in? And if power dredging and watermen based management is so wonderful, why are the oysters so few? The answer to my first question is obvious. They don't really care about the science. They want to harvest oysters and anything that gets in the way of harvesting is to be opposed and (based on the comments above) vilified. For the second question, don't use MSX and Dermo, they hurt, but they turned up in the 50's and 60's. Oyster harvest held relatively steady over the next 20 years till the late 80's when over harvesting finally crashed the oyster population. Now it's 2017 and the oysters are still thin on the ground. Watermen harvesting and power dredging reefs has been ongoing all these years, so if power dredging and watermen based oyster management was the answer, we would have lots of oysters and watermen wouldn't be trying to harvest sanctuaries. The answer to the second question is also obvious, watermen over harvest.

John Clark on April 19, 2017:

I fail to understand the rush to open the sanctuaries to harvest without any scientific basis to evaluate what's been achieved in the last 5 years. Anecdotal sea stories do not substitute for a sound assessment. One indication for the success of the St Mary's River Sanctuary, as a sanctuary, are the reprots that the commercial harvest downstream from the Sanctuary has increased by a factor of about 7 since the sanctuary was established. What is certainly without question is that the water clarity has increased by 2-3 times. However, the sanctuary is still plagued by a substantial anoxic zone, dating from well before the establishment of the sanctuary. Seems to me that its pretty clear the increased harvest, and the water conditions, both positive and negative, suggest that a careful analysis of what's happening in the St Mary's River is the wiser course of action before making changes.

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