Maryland natural resources officials say they have an “ambitious,” science-based plan for putting the state’s troubled oyster fishery on a path to sustainability in the next eight to 10 years. They want to get on with it.Scientists estimate that the Chesapeake's oyster population has decreased to 1% or less of its historic abundance. (Chesapeake Bay Program)

But others say the plan falls short because it fails to set a goal for rebuilding the state’s decimated oyster population and doesn’t make a firm enough commitment to stop overfishing. They’re hoping the General Assembly will order a do-over.

At a legislative briefing on the Department of Natural Resources’ proposed oyster management plan on July 23, a key lawmaker predicted the legislature would do just that.

Montgomery County Del. Kumar Barve, chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, said he was “a little disappointed” that Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed legislation that he and Anne Arundel County Sen. Sarah Elfreth sponsored.

That legislation, which passed overwhelmingly, would have required the DNR to work with all stakeholders, including often-disagreeing environmentalists and watermen, to find a consensus on how best to protect and restore oysters while also sustaining the commercial fishing industry. And it would have barred for another year or two any move by the DNR to open up the state’s oyster sanctuaries to commercial harvest.

It was the latest round in a three-year tug-of-war between the Hogan administration and lawmakers over Maryland’s management of oysters, which scientists estimate have declined to 1% or less of their historic Baywide abundance after decades of overharvesting, habitat loss and disease.

In vetoing the legislation, Hogan accused lawmakers of making an “end run” on his administration’s “thoughtful and science-based” efforts to manage oysters. But critics saw his action as another demonstration of his administration’s tilt toward reviving sagging oyster harvests, even if at the expense of the ecological value of oysters as water filterers and habitat for other fish. The DNR floated a plan two years ago to open some sanctuaries to harvest, before the legislature blocked it.

Hogan also vetoed legislation this year aimed at permanently barring the harvest of oysters in five sanctuaries undergoing large-scale restoration, but the General Assembly quickly overrode it.

The oyster management bill passed too late in the 90-day session for an override vote. But Barve said he expects the legislature will take it up promptly when it reconvenes in January.

DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio and Chris Judy, the DNR’s shellfish program manager, nevertheless defended their plan to lawmakers. It was the first update of the state’s oyster management in nine years and was unveiled in February. It’s on hold now before a joint legislative committee that reviews proposed regulations.

The plan was drawn up in consultation with all stakeholders, the DNR officials said, and it will give them the scientific guidance and flexibility they need to address overfishing, work toward restoring oyster populations in sanctuaries and grow the aquaculture industry.

With the wild oyster harvest season set to begin Oct. 1, Haddaway-Riccio said she and her staff are “really anxious” to get the management plan in place, along with new rules aimed at addressing the overfishing found by the department’s scientific stock assessment completed last year.

The plan lays out 22 strategies and 82 different actions, Judy explained, for managing the wild fishery and aquaculture operations while also restoring the oyster population. But it does not set specific harvest restriction to be adopted in the upcoming season, Judy said.

Those would be imposed by public notice, to take effect 48 hours after being announced, a process that Judy said is used in regulating other fisheries in the state. The DNR now sets oyster season dates and harvest limits by regulation, which can take months to finalize.

“We need that ability to react quickly instead of going through a long, drawn-out process that could go into next oyster season,” Haddaway-Riccio said.

The DNR’s plan for managing the commercial fishery is based on a scientific assessment of Maryland’s oyster stock completed last year — the first such analysis done in the state, resulting from a 2017 requirement from the General Assembly.

The assessment found that the number of market-size adult oysters waxed and waned but had declined by 50% from 1999. It also found that overfishing was occurring in 19 of 36 areas of Maryland’s portion of the Bay and its tributaries.

Judy said the DNR plan incorporates the stock assessment findings, but some lawmakers questioned whether that was enough.

“There are no milestones in the plan, goals or even targets,” said Baltimore County Del. Steve Lafferty. “There’s no time frame … for when [things] are going to take place. Without those markers, how do you know you’re achieving what you want to achieve?”

Judy responded that the DNR would update its stock assessment every two to five years to gauge the effectiveness of its management efforts.

“Oysters didn’t get into the fix they’re in overnight,” he noted. “It took decades.” Fixing the fishery’s problems likewise could take a long time, he added.

Baltimore County Del. Dana Stein, the committee vice chairman, pointed out that the vetoed legislation had directed the DNR to end overfishing in all of the areas where it was occurring and set a goal of increasing oyster abundance. He noted that the current DNR plan doesn’t even set a timeline for adopting an abundance goal.

Judy replied that the DNR intended to set that goal later in consultation with all those who have a stake in oyster abundance, including watermen and environmentalists. And Haddaway-Riccio argued that the need to act now overshadows the lack of a goal.

“We can get started this oyster season, or we can wait and delay and not do anything,” she said. “I don’t think anyone thinks that’s a wise choice.”

When asked what changes would be needed if the General Assembly does override the governor’s veto, Haddaway-Riccio said the DNR could continue managing the fishery under the proposed plan as it reconstitutes its oyster advisory commission to meet the legislature’s requirements and works toward a new plan.

But Sen. Elfreth, who had been invited to sit in on the House briefing, countered that “it feels a little bit like we’re building the plane while we’re flying it.” She questioned why the DNR couldn’t spell out now what measures it was looking to adopt to address the overfishing found in the stock assessment.

Haddaway-Riccio said those measures would be developed in consultation with stakeholders in the coming weeks.

At that point, Montgomery County Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo vented his frustration at what he called a “mind-boggling” lack of urgency at protecting oysters, which he argued have been so depleted over the past 100-plus years that they could be considered “functionally extinct.”

Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative advisory body, urged lawmakers to continue pressing for better management of Maryland’s oysters. Legislative engagement was critical to reversing serious declines in the Bay’s blue crab fishery years ago, she said, and is even more crucial in the case of oysters. The key to rebuilding the oyster population in Maryland waters depends on how the fishery is managed, she said, because those reefs available for harvest hold three-fourths of the remaining population.

Swanson said she thought the DNR had set a reasonable goal of achieving a sustainable fishery in eight to 10 years, but she also supported critics who cited its lack of a specific oyster abundance target.

“Our goal should be to rebuild the population, not just maintain it,’’ she said.

“We know now which areas are experiencing overfishing and we need to address them immediately,’’ she said. “We do not need to wait eight to 10 years to address overfishing. But it will likely take eight to 10 years to restore a fully sustainable fishery.”

After the briefing, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a statement saying that it “continues to have significant concerns” about the DNR’s plan and the harvest regulations it has put forward.

“Now is a critical moment for the oyster population in Maryland,” said Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Annapolis-based environmental group. “It’s time to make responsible management decisions and reverse the significant, long-term decline of oysters in the state. Unfortunately, the state’s proposed plan lacks any concrete strategies or commitments to achieve a sustainable fishery and increase the population of this important ecological resource.”