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."