A commitment to set aside 10 percent of the Bay’s historic oyster habitat, a goal recommended by a panel of scientists five years ago, is being dropped from a draft Bay Program oyster management plan.

The change was made after Maryland officials said they would not support the creation of any additional sanctuaries pending the completion of an environmental impact statement exploring the potential of introducing the foreign oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, in the Bay.

The review is also examining the potential for restoring native oysters in the Bay, and state officials say it should provide new information about the use of sanctuaries.

Chris Judy, director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources shellfish program, said the state would maintain its roughly 30 existing sanctuaries, and said several sanctuaries now in the review stage may still be approved.

“The sanctuary program still exists. There is still money for sanctuary efforts,” Judy said. But, he added, “The department isn’t supporting this aggressive, target-driven sanctuary program that we had previously.”
Mike Fritz, living resources coordinator for the EPA’s Bay Program Office, said he was worried that the language change sends a signal that the state-federal Bay Program partnership is weakening its commitment to native oyster restoration.

“We can’t conserve a mere 10 percent of oyster grounds to restoration of this resource?” Fritz asked. “It’s not the kind of message we want to be communicating at this time, considering the condition of the resource.”

The 10 percent goal stemmed from a 1999 scientific consensus reached among leading oyster scientists from around the region about how to proceed with oyster restoration in the Bay.

The consensus set the foundation for recent restoration efforts, calling for the construction of three-dimensional reefs stocked with adult oysters to jump-start reproduction and protected with permanent sanctuaries.

It also formed the basis for many of the oyster goals outlined in the Bay Program’s Chesapeake 2000 agreement—although the 10 percent sanctuary goal was never stated—and helped lead to sharply increased federal support for oyster restoration programs in the Bay.

Chesapeake 2000 had called for an oyster management plan to be finished by 2002, but completion of the document has lagged. At two recent Bay Program meetings, DNR representatives indicated the department no longer supported the 10 percent sanctuary goal in drafts of the plan.

With the consent of representatives from other fishery management agencies, the text was revised to contain more generic language calling for “sanctuaries in sufficient size and number.” The text was also changed from calling for states to “utilize sanctuaries and reserves” to “evaluate the use of sanctuaries and reserves.”

Judy said DNR officials had growing concerns about the effectiveness of existing sanctuaries, especially as the Bay’s oyster population has hit record lows, and did not want to designate more until the new scientific review is completed to offer better guidance. He said such issues as the best size and locations for sanctuaries remain unresolved.

“Everybody recognizes [the consensus] wasn’t based on really hard science,” Judy said. “That was just a direction the scientists wanted the sanctuaries to go.”

He said the state would continue to work on projects in existing sanctuaries in partnership with other agencies and organizations, as well as fund hatchery production of seed oysters for restoration projects.

Roger Newell, an oyster researcher with the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science and a member of the scientific consensus panel, agreed that sanctuaries have not been as effective as hoped, but said that was in part because some of those established to date are so small that watermen sometimes fish them by mistake. “It’s almost impossible for watermen to know where they are,” he said.

The solution, he said, was to make larger sanctuaries—not halt sanctuary creation. “It shows where DNR’s heart is,” he said. “It is not in conservation of the stock. It is preservation of the oyster harvest and the fishery.”

Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has used the scientific consensus statement to campaign for increased oyster restoration support from Congress, called the action “very disturbing.” He acknowledged that the consensus was not based on any specific research, but said it represented the scientific community’s “best advice” about how oyster restoration should take place. “I haven’t heard of any new scientific consensus that takes a different path.”

Jack Travelstead, director of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said his agency, which has created about 75 sanctuaries, had no plans to halt the creation of sanctuaries.

“We’re building sanctuary reefs down here just about as quickly as we possibly can,” he said. “We’re definitely in support of the concept of oyster reef sanctuaries.”