This year’s Maryland General Assembly session marks a critical juncture for Chesapeake Bay oysters. Policies under debate in the halls of the legislature will chart the course for oysters’ next 100 years. Now is the time to make the changes necessary to protect the oyster.
Before the session, the bad news arrived. In November, the state released the first comprehensive stock assessment of Maryland oysters. It found that the bivalves’ population had declined by half since 1999 — from about 600 million adult oysters to the current population of 300 million. The population decline is bad for both the Bay’s ecology and for the watermen who depend on the wild harvest to make their living.
The oyster’s significant decline is a symptom of a long history of overharvesting, disease and pollution in the Bay. The current population of oysters in Maryland’s portion of the Bay is less than 10 percent of the number of oysters harvested each year before 1900, according to the stock assessment.
While we can’t expect to re-create the natural state of the Bay before significant human intervention, Maryland can’t continue with business as usual. To reduce Bay pollutants, create more habitat for fish species and preserve the oyster for future generations, we must put Maryland on a path toward oyster recovery.
Two bills making their way through the Maryland General Assembly this year have the potential to make significant strides in this direction.
HB298/SB448 would permanently protect the state’s five oyster restoration sanctuaries. The other bill, HB720/SB830, aims to install a transparent, consensus-based process to draft a new fishery management plan dedicated to increasing the overall population of oysters and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the fishery in Maryland.
The restoration sanctuaries are tributaries targeted by state and federal partners for large-scale oyster restoration. The first and largest restoration project, completed in 2015, is in Harris Creek on the Eastern Shore. Three hundred fifty acres of Harris Creek’s bottom has been planted with about 2.5 billion spat since 2010.
The project is the largest sanctuary oyster restoration effort happening in the world. It’s an underwater laboratory where environmental scientists are making frequent discoveries.
One finding from the project is the ability of alternative substrates such as stone to support higher densities of oysters than traditional shell-based reefs. Reefs built with stone had four times the number of oysters on them than those built with shell bases, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study.
Oyster shell, which has traditionally been used in restoration and fishery replenishment, is becoming more expensive and difficult to obtain. Alternative substrate presents a way to efficiently create protected reefs in sanctuaries while preserving shell for activities such as oyster farming and replenishing harvest areas.
The restored tributary is also providing quantifiable environmental benefits. A 2018 Nature Conservancy study found that the oysters living at the restored reefs in the tributary can filter the full volume of Harris Creek in less than 10 days during summer months and have the potential to remove about one million pounds of nitrogen over a decade.
Despite these benefits, there is pressure from the oyster industry to allow harvesting on the restored reefs.
HB298/SB448 will protect Maryland’s five oyster restoration tributaries from harvesting forever, allowing them to expand their ecological benefits to the Bay as the oysters naturally grow and reproduce. The bill also helps to satisfy Maryland’s obligation under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement to restore native oyster populations in five tributaries by 2025 and ensure their protection.
Protecting the oyster restoration tributaries, however, won’t stop the species’ decline in the rest of the Bay. That’s why HB720/SB830 — the oyster fishery management plan bill — is also needed. The stock assessment shows that Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources has overseen an oyster fishery that allows harvesting at unsustainable rates for too long.
Maryland must not allow oysters to be harvested at a rate faster than they can reproduce if we are to ever restore the oyster population.
HB720/SB830 would require the DNR to convene a group of scientists, environmental advocates, watermen and seafood sellers to come to a consensus about ways to manage the oyster fishery to increase the bivalves’ population. This process would allow each stakeholder to provide input and learn from others who may hold opposing views. The workgroup will provide recommendations on potential management strategies to ensure sustainable oyster populations and a viable fishery harvest.
The result will be a consensus-driven and broadly supported set of recommendations that can advise the DNR on management strategies that can be used to reverse the decline of oysters in Maryland.
By permanently protecting sanctuaries and instituting stronger fisheries management plans, these two complementary bills provide a path to restore our iconic oyster and the marine life that depend on them. The tools are in hand. Now is the time for Bay-loving legislators and citizens to come together to save the oyster.
The views expresssed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.