In an effort to find some way to restore healthy oyster stocks in Maryland’s portion of the Bay, representatives of long-warring interest groups have put aside their differences and agreed upon a wide range of actions to help the beleaguered bivalve.

The 40-member panel brought together by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources signed an “action plan” in December that recommended dozens of actions relating to aquaculture, research, and the creation of special “recovery areas.”

The roundtable, which met during a six-month period, contained lawmakers, government officials, scientists, environmentalists, watermen, and aquaculturalists.

“After sitting all these different factions down, we all really listened to each other and we all learned something about each other,” said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman’s Association. “What we were able to develop was an action plan that doesn’t hurt the watermen and has a real potential for restoring the oyster stocks.”

The desire to move forward on oyster recovery efforts was evidenced by the wide range of actions in the plan, ranging from the establishment of quarantine areas where watermen would be prohibited from harvesting oysters, to evaluating the possibility of introducing of non-native species, which environmentalists have long resisted. Under the rules of the roundtable, any single member could have blocked any such controversial proposal from being incorporated into the final plan.

“Everyone’s afraid to count how many oyster conferences and blue-ribbon panels we’ve had over the years,” said Steve Jordan, a DNR biologist and head of the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory, which conducts the state’ oyster monitoring and some of the region’s oyster disease research. “This is the first time that we’ve had such a general agreement that we’ve got to move forward to try some really innovative things.”

The new plan represents a significant change in oyster management and policy. Beyond their economic value, the action plan endorses the need to bring back oysters to “ecologically healthy levels.”

That view is shared by a number of scientists and environmentalists who believe that large populations of adult oysters play an important ecological role in the Bay by filtering huge amounts of water, thereby removing excess algae, which degrade water quality.

“I think [the roundtable plan’s] most significant shift is the recognition of the ecological value of the role of the oysters,” said Bill Goldsborough, a staff scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation specializing in fisheries. “Ecologically speaking, the oyster is the most important species in the Bay.”

Before the oyster can play a significant ecological role in the Bay, however, some way must be found to increase the number of adults. Oyster restoration efforts have been hampered by two diseases — MSX and Dermo — that have devastated populations in recent years, killing most oysters before they reach the 3-inch harvest size.

Baywide oyster harvests are less than 1 percent of their historic levels, and last year’s Maryland harvest of 120,000 bushels was an all-time low.

For all the concern about oysters, roundtable members agreed it was not in danger of going extinct. Although most oysters succumb to disease before reaching harvest size, they live long enough to reproduce.

Nonetheless, unless some method is found to reduce the threat of disease, some suggest the native oyster could, in effect, become commercially extinct.

Much of the action plan is devoted to finding ways to stem the impact of disease on oysters. The plan calls for the creation of six “oyster recovery areas” in the Chester, Choptank, Magothy, Nanticoke, Patuxent, and Severn rivers.

In these areas — as well as any oyster recovery areas designated in the future — DNR will place only oyster “seed” (small oysters) that are certified to be disease free, most of which will have to be raised in a hatchery. Roundtable participants hope that seasonal pulses of fresh water will flush traces of the diseases, which require salt water to survive, out of those rivers. “The idea is that when that happens, we’re not doing anything that would help it perpetuate by bringing MSX and Dermo back in,” said Paul Massicot, director of DNR’s Tidewater Administration.

DNR traditionally reseeds oyster bars throughout its portion of the Bay with naturally spawned seed to bolster oyster stocks. Some believe that has helped spread the disease throughout the Bay. Disease-infested seed is typically used because there is not enough hatchery produced larvae to stock all the bars.

“Once we stop moving the diseased oysters around, we hope that the diseases will begin to wane,” said Roger Newell, a scientist at the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Environmental Laboratory and a member of the roundtable. But, he added, it is possible that natural conditions, such as currents, will continue to contaminate areas. “I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will work,” he said, “but we are still at the mercy of the rainfall and other natural patterns.”

The plan calls for continuation of the DNR’s regular reseeding practices outside the recovery areas until the results of the certified seed program can be analyzed.

The new oyster recovery areas will have several zones in which different uses would be allowed. In some areas, for example, harvesting may be prohibited. In others, the demonstration of aquacultural techniques, various oyster bar rebuilding methods, and other combinations of management and research tactics may be tried.

A non-profit corporation, consisting of aquaculturalists, watermen, and environmentalists will be formed and authorized to raise funds to carry out different projects in the recovery areas.

“We think both substantively and symbolically, that the idea of aquaculturalists, watermen, and the environmentalists forming a joint venture of this type is a major milestone,” Massicot said. “Just the cooperative nature of that effort signals a significant change in the oyster situation in Maryland.”

The plan for the first time promotes the aquaculture growth of oysters in the state. Oysters grown by aquacultural practices — particularly methods which grow oysters in trays instead of on the bottom — tend to grow faster and reach market size before they can be killed by disease.

The DNR, though, has never had a permit for shellfish aquaculture in the Bay or its tributaries. The action plan calls for a pilot program in which 20, 5-year permits will be issued. The projects will demonstrate a variety of different production techniques such as off-bottom oyster cultivation and private restoration of oyster bars.

“We’re going to try to figure out what does and doesn’t work,” said Tom Hopkins, president of the Maryland Aquaculture Association. He cautioned that while aquaculture oysters tend to be larger and higher quality than those harvested from the Bay floor, they are also more expensive. As a result, he said, aquaculture probably could not be looked at as a substitute for traditional oyster harvesting in the Bay as some suggest.

The plan also calls for studying the potential of reducing the minimum harvest size of oysters from 3 inches to 2.5 inches, and setting a maximum harvest size of 4 inches. The plan states that the smaller size would allow more oysters to be harvested before they die of disease, while the 4-inch maximum would protect larger oysters that have demonstrated resistance to disease.

To bolster the oyster population, the plan calls for planting other strains of the eastern oyster, which are not native to the Bay, in parts of the Chesapeake to see how well they survive. Massicot said research suggests that some strains may have desirable characteristics such as faster growth rates.

In addition, the plan holds out the possibility of someday introducing foreign species in the Bay. If other efforts do not appear to be working, the state could consider — after imposing a 5-year restriction on oyster harvests — bringing a non-native species into the Bay. The plan calls for conducting an environmental impact assessment of the introduction of a non-native species to determine whether it could harm the Bay’s ecology.

Such an introduction has been strongly opposed by environmentalists and the state of Maryland in the past. But, Massicot said, “We strongly support doing what is in that plan, namely preparing the groundwork for making a reasoned decision if we should get to that point.”

If the native species cannot be restored, Newell said, the crucial ecological role oysters play in the Bay justifies bringing in a new species. But first, he said, “you’ve got to do what you can — and this is the best plan we could come up with — to really ensure that you’ve given C. virginica [the eastern oyster] every opportunity to flourish again.”

Among other items in the action plan:

  • Maryland should conduct different projects to restore physical oyster habitat, such as rebuilding oyster bars, and evaluate their effectiveness.
  • Water quality programs — including the tributary nutrient reduction strategies being developed — should include measures to protect oyster habitat.
  • The state should maximize the hatchery production of oyster larvae and encourage private enterprises to consider building additional hatcheries.
  • Existing research related to oyster disease should be bolstered.

Plans call for the continuation of the oyster roundtable, with a steering committee taking an active role in overseeing implementation of the program.

Among its roles, Massicot said, will be exploring funding options to finance all the plan’s actions, which could cost “in the millions of dollars.”

A full review of the plan is anticipated in about 5 years to determine if any “mid-course corrections” are needed, Massicot said.

Massicot and other roundtable participants — all of whom agreed to the plan — were generally optimistic about the agreement reached, though they acknowledged it was only a first step.

“We have reached an agreement, now comes the difficult part — implementing it,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and a member of the roundtable. “I am hopeful the Bay will benefit from this significant alliance.”