The debate over Maryland’s oyster management is heating up, as watermen are pushing to open 14,000 acres of the state’s extensive sanctuary network to harvest.

Only about 1,340 of those acres actually have oysters on them, Department of Natural Resources officials said. But they include opening to harvest part of a river that’s undergone large-scale, publicly funded restoration of its reefs and oyster population.

The proposals, outlined at a meeting of the DNR’s Oyster Advisory Commission in November, drew immediate pushback from environmentalists and scientists. And a federal fisheries official warned that granting watermen’s request to open portions of the Little Choptank River could undermine oyster repopulation efforts under way as part of Maryland’s commitment to the Chesapeake Bay restoration.

Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton, who has indicated a willingness to tinker with the sanctuaries, called the watermen’s proposals “a starting point.” He told advisory commission members that he expected a “lengthy discussion” as they review these and other proposals to alter the state’s management of its ecologically and economically important shellfish.

Over the years, Maryland has placed about 250,000 acres of the Bay and its tributaries in sanctuaries, of which about 30 percent is “historic oyster bottom”— areas charted as actively harvested in state surveys  a century ago, when commercial harvests hovered around 4 million bushels annually.

Since then, many of the reefs that once harbored oysters have vanished, worn away by repeated harvesting or buried in silt. More recent surveys indicate only about 36,000 acres of viable oyster habitat remain. Of that “productive oyster bottom,” as DNR officials call it, about 9,000 acres are in sanctuaries, with the other 27,000 acres open for harvest.

That breakdown is a sore subject with watermen, who opposed a significant expansion of the state’s oyster sanctuaries under former Gov. Martin O’Malley, which they say took some of the most productive oyster reefs out of the public fishery. 

Even though harvests have quadrupled since 2009, the industry has been pressing to open some sanctuaries since the 2014 election of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who vowed to end what he called O’Malley’s “war on watermen.” The Hogan administration has since shown its willingness to heed watermen’s complaints, replacing fishery managers at the DNR viewed as unresponsive to the industry and temporarily halting federally funded oyster restoration work in the Tred Avon River, to which watermen had objected.

The industry’s pressure for more places to harvest comes as the number of watermen oystering has nearly doubled since 2009. Annual harvests, meanwhile, which topped 400,000 bushels in 2014, have dipped the last two years and appear likely to be still lower this season.

If all are granted, the watermen’s proposals would reduce the share of viable oyster habitat in sanctuaries from nearly 24 percent to 20 percent. That’s the minimum level that Belton had set as a “guardrail” when he invited watermen to propose changes to the sanctuaries. DNR officials had said studies of marine conservation efforts elsewhere suggested that to maintain a sustainable oyster population, 20–30 percent of the state’s viable habitat ought to be protected from harvest pressure.

Chris Judy, head of the DNR’s shellfish division, said that while the watermen’s proposals would remove a seemingly large amount of sanctuary areas, “what’s important is the bottom where the oysters live.” The bulk of the acreage covered by the watermen’s proposals, though charted long ago as oyster bars, is now barren sand or mud, for the most part, he added.

The proposals, submitted by watermen’s committees in 11 counties, seek to open sanctuary reefs on a mostly limited basis, allowing harvests only every three or four years or for just a few weeks at the end of each season. In most cases, they seek access to only a small portion of a designated sanctuary area.

“You’ve got some counties asking for 23 acres, 58 acres, 103 acres,” pointed out Bill Kilinski, a Charles County waterman. “It isn’t like a big wish list.”

Belton had encouraged watermen to nominate other areas for sanctuary status in exchange for those they wanted to open to harvest. None of the county proposals offered any such swaps. Instead, they argued that they should get credit for improving the oyster habitat by putting a fresh layer of shells on the opened reefs, on which oyster larvae might settle and grow.

“Not one cent has been put in these areas,” said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. “It’s not necessary to get an exchange for them.”

Some commission members, including non-watermen, indicated they thought at least some of the proposed changes were reasonable. But others said they were concerned that it would be more difficult to prevent poaching if reefs within sanctuary areas or just upriver of them were opened to harvest.

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, noted that some of the reefs watermen want opened to harvest are in what the DNR staff had classified as “Tier 1” sanctuaries, where oysters appear to be thriving in the absence of harvest. The DNR’s recent five-year review of state oyster management recommended keeping all of those as sanctuaries, with or without any state investment in replenishing reefs with shells or stocking with hatchery-spawned juvenile oysters.

“We need to protect those areas that are working,” Boesch said, adding later, “If we’re opening them up, then we’re challenging the whole notion of sanctuaries.”

Peyton Robertson, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office, cautioned the commission about a proposal by Dorchester County watermen to open up three areas with 86 acres of oyster habitat in the Little Choptank River.

The Little Choptank is one of three Bay tributaries that Maryland had designated for large-scale oyster restoration efforts to further its pledge to restore five tributaries by 2025. The work there is only partially complete. About $15 million — mostly state funding but some federal monies as well — had been spent through last year to restore 103 acres of reefs and “plant” more than 200 million hatchery-produced juvenile oysters.

The restoration plan for the Little Choptank calls for building a total of 440 acres of reefs and planting 1.9 billion seed oysters, at an anticipated cost of $29 million. A large portion of the river has been set aside as a sanctuary.

Belton said he would need to consult with the DNR’s lawyers about whether portions of the Little Choptank sanctuary could be opened for harvest if they had not received any active restoration work.

But Robertson warned that opening even those areas of the Little Choptank sanctuary could affect the restoration effort. If federal scientists determined the changes undermined prospects for the joint state-federal project’s success, he said, Maryland might be required to identify another tributary for large-scale restoration and start over.

Environmental advocates also have been invited to submit proposed changes in the sanctuaries, and they indicated they would seek new areas to be put off limits to harvest.

Ben Alexandro, with the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, reminded DNR officials that the General Assembly had ordered them to assess the sustainability of the public oyster fishery and determine whether overharvesting is occurring. A final report is not due until the end of 2018.

“Turning around and [allowing] harvesting in sanctuaries now, especially before the study is concluded, goes against legislative intent,” Alexandro said. “Please,” he urged the advisory commission, “leave a legacy for the Bay.”