Maryland’s extensive network of oyster sanctuaries would shrink by 11 percent under a draft plan drawn up by state natural resources officials, which would open several protected areas to periodic harvest by watermen while setting aside other areas.

The draft, presented Monday night to the state’s Oyster Advisory Commission, would open nearly 1,000 acres of areas known to be productive oyster bottom to harvesting in the state’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay. It drew cautious praise from watermen and other seafood industry supporters, but questions from scientists and criticism from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Department of Natural Resources officials called the proposal a “fair and balanced” attempt to bridge deep division between watermen seeking to reclaim access to oyster reefs they used to harvest and environmentalists insisting the sanctuaries should remain unchanged, if not expanded.

DNR officials called the plan a “strawman” meant to help the commission arrive at its own recommendations on the fate of the state’s 51 oyster sanctuaries.

“This is not a DNR proposal,” Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton said. “This is not what we would like to see, necessarily.”

Officials said that in drafting the plan, they drew from competing proposals presented over the past few months from watermen seeking more areas to harvest and from environmentalists and community groups wanting protection for places where bivalves had been planted in the water for their ecological value. 

Watermen have lobbied 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 historic overharvesting, habitat loss and disease, is now estimated to be less than 1 percent of historic levels. Stressing the need to protect oysters for their ecological value as natural water filters and habitat for other fish and crabs, O’Malley 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.

The plan presented by the DNR would declassify all or portions of seven of the state’s 51 sanctuaries, while creating three new sanctuaries and expanding existing protected areas in four other locations. The net effect of the changes would leave 21 percent of the state’s productive oyster habitat in sanctuaries.

Sanctuaries would be shrunk or eliminated in the upper Chester River, the Miles and Wye rivers, the upper Choptank River, the upper Patuxent River and in Hooper Strait, near the entrance to Tangier Sound. Those mostly Eastern Shore areas would be designated for “rotational harvest,” a technique pioneered in Virginia under which hatchery-spawned oysters would be planted on reefs and allowed to grow for at least three years before being harvested. 

A seventh, 100-acre sanctuary in Tangier Sound would be eliminated under the draft plan, because officials said it was relatively small and isolated and had proven difficult to enforce.

The draft plan proposes creating three new sanctuaries on the Western Shore — two in the Patuxent River and one in Whitehall Bay north of the Severn River. Existing sanctuaries also would be expanded in Eastern Bay, in the lower Choptank River and in the Nanticoke River.

Notably, the draft plan proposes no changes to three Eastern Shore sanctuaries that have sparked controversy because of restoration work done in them at state and federal expense. Those projects in Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River and Tred Avon River have drawn fire from watermen because of the cost — estimated at more than $40 million overall — and for the use of material other than oyster shells to build new reefs. Despite being criticized as boondoggles, surveys by state and federal scientists indicate oysters are growing and reproducing on reefs built out of granite, clam shells and fossil shells excavated from a Florida quarry.

Maryland has pledged under the 2014 Bay Watershed Agreement to conduct the large-scale restoration of reefs in five of its tributaries. Belton has charged the commission with recommending the remaining two sites for that work. The draft plan listed several candidates, and Belton suggested the panel closely consider Breton Bay, a tributary of the Potomac River.

Belton said the DNR also would seek to invest an unspecified amount of funds in restoring reefs in sanctuaries in six areas on both shores, responding to another criticism from watermen that nothing has been done to enhance or even maintain oyster populations in many of the protected areas.

Members of the commission generally welcomed the DNR proposal as a good start, though watermen and their supporters — at least some of whom had been briefed on the plan in advance — seemed more supportive than environmentalists and scientists. 

“Overall, I think this is a very good place to start,” said Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. “I can see where a couple counties are going to have hard problems with it; others no problem at all.”

“It’s going to take some give and take,” said Jim Mullin, executive director of the Maryland Oystermen Association. He said agreement might be possible “if some folks just don’t dig their heels in on us and we don’t dig our heels in. … We’ve got a lot at stake.”

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, also said there was “a lot to like” about the proposal. But he voiced concern about the ecological effects of shrinking the share of the state’s productive oyster habitat that’s protected from harvest pressure.

‘’That’s (a reduction of) more than 11 percent of the area that’s in sanctuaries now,” Boesch said. “It’s not a trivial adjustment.”

Belton had said he wanted to keep 20 – 30 percent of the state’s oyster habitat in sanctuaries, per scientific advice on what was needed to sustain the population and its ecological functions. But Boesch said the proposal, while still within those “guardrails,” would move the state’s sanctuaries from the middle of that range to the “edge” of what scientists had recommended was the minimum needed.

“Is that a prudent thing to do in terms of public policy?” the scientist asked.

Boesch also noted that several of the sanctuaries proposed for reduction or elimination had been classified by DNR’s own scientists as “Tier 1” areas, the healthiest reefs where oysters appeared to be thriving and reproducing enough to maintain their numbers. DNR’s report last year on its five-year review of the state’s oyster management had recommended no change to those top-tier sanctuaries. 

“Why would we change the conclusion of that scientific assessment now?” Boesch asked.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a statement Tuesday critical of the draft plan, saying there’s no scientific justification for opening nearly 1,000 acres of sanctuaries to harvest.

Alison Prost, CBF’s Maryland director, contended that the draft “heavily weighs the desires of the commercial seafood industry” but ignored the wishes of more than 4,000 members of the public who voiced a desire to keep the sanctuaries closed to harvest.

“Sanctuaries are the oyster population’s insurance policy,” Prost concluded. “In the absence of a stock assessment and a science-based management plan, we should be protecting these areas, not opening them up to harvest.”

Belton said he hoped that commission members would review the draft plan, consult with their constituents, and come back next month ready to discuss it in detail and offer any alternatives they deemed preferable.

“This is just a starting point,” assured Chris Judy, head of DNR’s shellfish division. He urged commission members to look at the proposal “holistically,” rather than focus on elements they found objectionable.

“Just think of a recipe,” Judy suggested. “The ingredients alone do not make a meal. Put together they make the meal.”