Bay Journal

Growing number of watermen could pose threat to oyster comeback

VA moves to gradually curb harvester licenses; issue gets scant notice in MD

  • By Timothy B. Wheeler on September 29, 2016
Watermen ply Broad Creek on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for oysters. (Dave Harp) Lewis Carter culls good oysters from his catch while tonging on Broad Creek during the first week of oyster season in 2013.  (Dave Harp)

The recent uptick in the Bay’s oyster population has reversed the long-term decline in the number of watermen pursuing the bivalve. But as another oyster season begins Saturday, some worry that what’s good in the short term for harvesters could harm the fledgling oyster comeback.

In Virginia, the number of watermen who’ve paid the fee required to harvest oysters from public bottom has grown by 50 percent since 2013. In Maryland, the ranks of those who’ve plunked down $300 for the same right doubled since 2008.

That’s produced some tension on the water, particularly at the beginning of the season in October, as scores of boats jockey for position at times to find a good spot to harvest.

“I tell you, it’s a rat race,” said J.C. Hudgins, a veteran waterman from Mathews, VA, who says boats sometimes nearly collide on opening day as they circle over a promising reef. He figures there’ll be a mob scene again at the start of this season. For the first month, just one area on the Rappahannock River will be open for harvest using “hand scrapes,” small, rake-like dredges powered by a motor that are popular in the fishery because of their efficiency at scooping up oysters.

Beyond the risks of boats bumping, the oyster rush has prompted concerns in some quarters that it could short-circuit the recovery of a shellfish that’s important to the Bay ecologically as well as economically. After increasing steadily for several years, the harvest from public waters dipped last season in Virginia, and it’s slipped the last two years in Maryland.

Harvests generally fluctuate with the success, or lack thereof, of oysters’ reproduction. But Virginia regulators, worried that harvest pressure has reached unsustainable levels, recently acted to reduce the number of watermen licensed to go after oysters.

At a meeting in late August, the Virginia Marine Resource Commission — concluding that too many watermen were chasing too few oysters — voted unanimously to gradually shrink the number of commercial harvest licenses over the next several years through what one regulator called “voluntary attrition.” No new licenses will be issued, and future license transfers will be limited either to direct family members or to those license holders who’ve logged at least 40 days of harvesting the previous season.

“The fishery had gotten just way too big,” explained Jim Wesson, chief of oyster conservation and replenishment for the commission.

In Maryland, though, the issue has gotten scant attention. Some watermen say they’d like to see the Department of Natural Resources emulate other aspects of Virginia’s oyster management. They’re particularly interested in its “rotational harvest” regimen, where areas around the state are opened on a rotating basis only once every two or three years for dredging or scraping bivalves. But suggestions to look at limiting Maryland’s fishery have been brushed off, as watermen and regulators focus instead on getting more oysters to harvest by reopening sanctuaries created six years ago.

At a recent meeting of the state’s oyster advisory commission, when one member pointed out the dramatic growth in the oyster fishery and asked if it shouldn’t be a topic for discussion, Dave Blazer, the DNR fisheries director, responded that the sustainability of the harvest is to be the focus of a stock assessment ordered earlier this year by state lawmakers. That study, opposed by watermen and at least initially by DNR officials, isn’t due until the end of 2018.

Blazer was not available to discuss the issue further. DNR spokesman Stephen Schatz issued a statement on Blazer’s behalf that said in part: “The department uses the best available data and science and the informed engagement of stakeholders to guide management decisions. That is especially true when it comes to shellfish, and particularly oysters.”

The fishery curbs in Virginia were a long time coming, and watermen there only reluctantly agreed to a gradual reduction in the ranks of harvesters.

“It’s an unpopular subject, no doubt,” said Hudgins, who is the unofficial head of the Virginia Waterman’s Association. “Being in the waterman’s association, I hate to see anybody lose the right to go on the water. But when you have limited resources, you have to be able to manage that.”

According to the VMRC’s Wesson, fishery regulators had run out of other options.

The number of Virginia watermen who paid a user fee to harvest oysters on public bottom areas has grown from 661 in 2013 to 991 last year. And with a total of 1,124 licenses already issued, still more could jump in at any time simply by paying the $50 or $300 annual fee, depending on whether they harvest the old-fashioned way, with scissors-like hand tongs, or with power-driven hand scrapes or larger dredges.

“We have to control the harvest in order to keep something out there for the watermen to harvest down the road,” Wesson told commission members at a July meeting.

Though many Virginia watermen still use hand tongs, the bulk of the wild harvest comes via mechanical means, which are so efficient they can remove virtually all of the large oysters in a matter of days or weeks. Harvests have remained stable in some areas subject to scraping and dredging, which under the state’s rotational harvest system are only open for two to three months every three years. Nonetheless, there’s been a big drop in the catch in a few key areas, particularly in Tangier and Pocomoke sounds, which are open to harvest every other year.

To mitigate the pressure, the state has cut the workweek for harvesters on public grounds from five days to four. But Wesson told marine commissioners that he feared any further moves to curb catches, such as shortening the season, reducing the daily catch limit or restricting the use of mechanized harvesting gear would make it too difficult to make a living by oystering.

Earlier, concerned about the growth in the fishery, the commission had announced that it may cut off the right to oyster for anyone who entered the fishery after July 1, 2014. But after hashing out various reduction scenarios with watermen and an advisory commission, Wesson said regulators shied away from that approach because the newer participants in the fishery tended to be younger, and could be its stalwarts in future years as more aging watermen leave the business.

Much of the growth in the fishery has been on a part-time basis, which could be undermining the viability of those who oyster full-time for a living. More than half the people reporting harvest by scraping or dredging went out fewer than 20 days the last two seasons, VMRC data show. The number reporting that they harvested less than 50 bushels all season using any gear doubled, to around 300 last year. Meanwhile, the number of “high rollers,” as Wesson called them, who reported large harvests of 500 bushels or more in a season, has been going down.

“The amount (of oysters) available to each harvester gets smaller and smaller as the number of harvesters increases,” Wesson told the VMRC.

The curbs approved by the VMRC in August reflect a year’s back-and-forth between regulators and the commercial fishing industry. They’re intended, Wesson said, to help those who rely on oystering for their livelihood while weeding out some part-timers.

With the restrictions on transferring licenses, it could be several years before the number of harvesters drops back to 600, a level regulators consider sustainable.

“It was a hard sell,” Wesson said. But he added, “I think that everyone that’s in (the fishery) is happy to see it. They all complain about too many people on the bars. Over time, hopefully, they’ll see the benefits of it.”

Hudgins, the Virginia watermen’s leader, said he appreciated the “voluntary attrition” approach instead of just cutting people off.

“We’re hoping through time that some of these people, they’ll drop out,” he said.

In Maryland, the number of watermen licensed or authorized to harvest oysters has grown from 570 in the 2007-2008 season to 1,146, according to DNR figures.

Over that time, the harvest jumped from 83,000 bushels in 2008 to a peak of 431,000 bushels in 2014, the biggest landing since the late 1980s, when a pair of oyster diseases began to devastate the Bay’s bivalve populations.

The wild harvest has slipped the last two years, though, to 383,000 bushels, and it’s expected to be lower still this season. Biologists say two good “spat sets” of young oysters in 2010 and 2012 spurred the harvest increase, but that landings are on the wane now because there hasn’t been good reproduction the past few years.

The waters in Maryland open for wild oyster harvest also get crowded at times.

“The first day last year, there were 200 boats on Broad Creek,” Talbot County waterman Jason Schmidt told the advisory commission recently, recalling the scene on a Choptank River tributary that’s historically had abundant oysters.

“It’s not sustainable,” Schmidt added. But he made it clear he believed that’s because watermen have fewer places to harvest. In 2010, under former Gov. Martin O’Malley, the state expanded its network of sanctuaries where oysters would be protected for their ecological value, filtering nutrients and sediment from the water and providing habitat for fish and other marine creatures. The area set aside in sanctuaries grew from 9 percent of the state’s viable oyster habitat to 24 percent. While that still left 76 percent for the wild harvest, watermen contend the state made sanctuaries out of some of their best harvest areas.

Robert T. Brown, president of Maryland Watermen’s Association, said the state’s oyster fishery is already capped, and no one new can get into it. To him and other watermen, they simply need more areas to harvest and more oyster shells to put back on the bottom for young oysters or spat to settle on.

While the fishery is capped, the ceiling is so high that the number of participants in Maryland’s wild oyster harvest could double again, to nearly 3,000, according to DNR data.

Under Maryland’s licensing regulations, anyone who has a tidal fishing license or who buys an oyster harvest authorization can fish commercially for the bivalves. Both have been capped, according to Schatz, the DNR spokesman, so no more can be sold. There’s a waiting list with more than 70 names of people hoping to buy an oyster harvest permit.

In the 2014–15 season, 1,146 people paid the $300 surcharge that the DNR requires to participate in the wild harvest. But the total number who could have paid the surcharge and gone out is 2,769, Schatz noted, as there were 2,117 individuals holding a tidal fishing license and 652 with an oyster harvest authorization.

Maryland needs to crank that number down, said Bill Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“I think there’s too many potential participants,” Goldsborough said. “Anyone who’s full-time is affected when all those people jump in, take the cream off the top and go back to their other jobs. It’s no wonder these watermen are looking for more bottom.”

Chris Judy, who manages the DNR shellfish program, said watermen have complained to him before about part-timers, but there has also been a reluctance to exclude anyone. And in a way, Judy added, the number of people harvesting oysters is self-regulating.

“It’s not a precise process, but as oysters go down, in a downturn, you’ll see people drop out,” he said.

But Goldsborough contended the state can’t afford to assume everything will work out, either for the oysters or watermen.

“The people that are making a living off the Bay, we want [them] to survive,” he said. “I don’t think we appreciate how many the Bay can support.”

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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