In its last session, the Maryland General Assembly passed a resolution calling on the governor to appoint a task force to assess current practices and prospects for restoring the stocks of the Eastern oyster in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake Bay. As the oyster restoration news to date is not all good, a reassessment of what we have been doing is welcome.
Fourteen years after the state's much-heralded Oyster Roundtable, oyster stocks are lower than they were when the roundtable was convened. The tenfold increase in oyster biomass mandated in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement is that much further from being met, seven years after that agreement was signed.
The Horn Point Hatchery, Maryland's sole source for disease-free seed oysters has ramped up its production, to be sure. And the watermen and their partners who get those seed oysters have been busy spreading them on harvest bars, managed reserves and sanctuaries.
But unfortunately, the bigger problem, the management regime that got us reduced oyster stocks in the first place, has not yet been seriously re-examined. This surprising omission has resulted because watermen have never been willing to come to the table if generally limiting access to public oyster bottom was an item for discussion.
Instead of reconsidering how we manage the whole fishery, watermen and other decision makers determined that small portions of public oyster bottom should be set aside for either sanctuaries, where oysters should never be harvested, or managed reserves, where managers allow the oysters an additional year of growth before letting harvesters take them.
Concessions on small portions of oyster bottom were much more palatable to the stakeholders than, say, closing the entire fishery. This deal was made sweeter with commitments to ensure harvestable supply by the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership through their use of "restoration resources."
A recent article in The (Baltimore) Sun called attention to the subsidy implied by existing management of oyster restoration resources. In particular, that article noted that the cost of putting the oysters out on the bottom was borne by the public while the harvest value was captured by harvesters; a scenario that falls well within the definition of a subsidy. Additionally, it cited research showing that the costs of putting oysters on the bottom for watermen to harvest were higher than the commercial benefit generated by harvesting them.
While this is likely, the loss implied by current costs and returns is not the only, or even the primary, loss in this scheme. Consider what stock effect might follow from putting all of our restoration resources into sanctuaries or shutting down the fishery altogether. If that stock effect is positive, then we are forgoing that much benefit as well. And if we look very far into the future, those losses may dwarf the subsidy losses.
In our current calculation of what is best for the fishery, we show that we place a very high value on maintaining the livelihoods of current harvesters by supplying them-at a loss-oysters to harvest. Even though those restoration resources could have been used to grow unharvested oysters that might become self-sustaining populations, providing brood stock for restored oyster habitat, we use them instead to maintain current harvesters through an economically inefficient put-and-take fishery.
This does not advance our objective of restoring oyster stocks. The question that needs to be asked is this: Will there be more oysters in the Bay in 20 years if we shut the oyster fishery today and put all of our efforts into truly trying to restore oyster stocks? If so, then what makes the current crop of harvesters more important than all the generations of harvesters yet to come? Is it because current harvesters vote and future generations don't? Is that really what it all comes down to?
If so, there are a number of ways to solve that problem. Without increasing the current restoration budget, harvesters could be made better off by paying them the net benefit that they might have gained harvesting oysters (to not harvest oysters). After making those payments, there would still be money in the pot that could be used to restore oyster stocks.
This is what is meant by saying that the put-and-take fishery is economically inefficient. More reasonably, harvesters could be offered assistance in learning how to profitably grow oysters, as is already being done elsewhere in the Bay. Regulations would need to be changed and, most importantly, we would have to re-think our narrow commitment to keeping Maryland's oyster grounds open to all harvesters and subsidized with public funds.
But the payoff in terms of oyster restoration could be large. A thorough reappraisal of current oyster management could open a new chapter in our efforts to restore healthy oyster populations to the Chesapeake Bay. We should all hope that the newly formed oyster task force takes up its charge with courage and honesty.