The Maryland General Assembly on Monday overrode Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of legislation aimed at preventing harvests from oyster sanctuaries in five Chesapeake Bay tributaries that the state has targeted for large-scale restoration.

Maryland's Senate narrowly overrode Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of a bill providing legislative protection for oyster sanctuaries in five tributaries targeted for large-scale restoration. In this 2017 photo, oysters grew in abundance atop a manmade reef in St. Mary's River. (Dave Harp)  By a narrow margin, the Senate mustered the three-fifths majority needed to overcome Hogan’s bid last week to block the oyster sanctuary bill. The vote in the chamber was 29 to 16. The House had voted more emphatically, 96-43, on Friday to override Hogan’s veto.

The Senate override vote came a day after the death of House Speaker Michael Busch, chief sponsor of the House version of the sanctuary bill. Prince George’s County Sen. Paul Pinsky was lead sponsor of a Senate version and chief advocate for it in that chamber.

The measure requires legislative approval to alter the sanctuaries in five tributaries where major reef restoration work is completed, under way or planned by 2025. The state Department of Natural Resources had created the sanctuaries by regulation but has entertained proposals in the past couple of years to open some areas to harvest.

The bill had the backing of environmental groups, who pointed to a recent state study finding that Maryland’s stock of market-size oysters has declined by half since 1999 and that more than half of the state’s public fishery areas are being overharvested.

But watermen opposed the bill, contending that the sanctuaries aren’t helping to restore the oyster population. They have pressed the state to open portions of some sanctuaries — including at least one of those affected by the bill — to let them try harvesting oysters on a rotational basis every few years, a management method used in Virginia.

Busch, who died Sunday after being hospitalized with pneumonia, issued a statement through his staff on Friday calling Hogan’s veto “unfortunate” and saying the legislation was “critical to the health of the Bay.”

Environmental groups hailed the veto override. Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called it “another milestone” in the Bay’s recovery and the revival of the state’s depleted oyster population, estimated to be at 1 or 2 percent of historic levels.

Hogan’s veto had appeared unlikely to stand, because the bill originally passed with enough votes for an override. But with watermen’s groups urging him to veto it — one group’s letter called it a “crushing” blow to commercial fishermen — the governor refused to sign it or let it become law without his signature. He issued a strongly worded denunciation of it Thursday night, calling it “bad policy” both for watermen and the Bay.

Hogan complained that codifying the sanctuaries through legislation undermined his administration’s efforts to forge a consensus over oyster management among environmentalists and watermen, who have long been at odds over the issue.

Oyster restoration work is essentially complete in Harris Creek, and surveys have found the shellfish thriving and reproducing there.  Similar work is in various stages of construction or planning in the other four rivers — the Tred Avon, Little Choptank, St. Mary’s and Manokin. Major portions of all five are in sanctuaries, off limits to commercial oyster harvest.

A clump of oysters pulled up from a restored reef in Maryland's Harris Creek. The greatest density was found on granite stones put on the bottom. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)The state is effectively prevented from opening sanctuaries in Harris Creek and the Tred Avon to harvest because federal funds helped to pay for the work on the condition that no harvest be allowed. But the Department of Natural Resources has said it plans to restore the St. Mary’s and Manokin with state funds only, which leaves open the possibility of changing their designation later. Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, has urged the DNR to open a portion of the St. Mary’s sanctuary for the removal of seed oysters because it had been used for that purpose in the past.

A stakeholder group including both watermen and environmentalists agreed last year on a plan for managing oysters in the Choptank region, which includes three of the five restoration tributaries — Harris Creek and the Tred Avon and Little Choptank. The OysterFutures group, organized by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, had urged the state to allow rotational harvesting in the sanctuary in the Little Choptank.

The DNR has said it is considering the group’s proposals, and Hogan criticized the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for participating in that consensus-building process, only to push later for this legislation, which would prevent opening any of the Little Choptank sanctuary without legislative approval.

CBF’s Prost said that the organization had signed onto the entire package of OysterFutures recommendations, which also included provisions to increase oyster fishery taxes, limit access to the fishery and work with federal partners to complete oyster restoration projects. To date, she added, the DNR has taken no action on any of them.

“CBF agreed to them as a package,” Prost said, “not each one as an individual policy proposal.”

The Nature Conservancy, which has helped with Bay oyster restoration projects, issued a statement praising the sanctuary bill as well as another measure recently passed, which calls for the DNR to try consensus-building again in drawing up a new statewide oyster management plan - even though some watermen have said they'd be reluctant to participate in such an exercise again because of the way the legislature negated one of the OysterFutures recommendations. 

“In protecting oysters we also protect all of the benefits we get from them, including water filtration, erosion and wave reduction, and habitat for many other important species like blue crabs and rockfish,” said Mark Bryer, the conservancy’s Chesapeake Bay Program director. “It’s imperative that we recognize oysters must be effectively managed for those multiple benefits as well.”