Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley announced new regulations in May to increase the number and quality of oyster sanctuaries in state waters as well as to make it easier for watermen and other interested parties to get into the aquaculture business.
The regulations, which are expected to take effect before oyster season begins in the fall, have been in the works for several months as various scientific studies have shed new light on the state of the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population, which remains at historic lows. Harvests, once measured in the millions of bushels, barely top 100,000 bushels most seasons.
Under the new plan, the state will expand its sanctuary network from 9 percent of the viable oyster habitat to 25 percent. What's even more important, the governor is promising that the sanctuaries will be placed on quality bottom, instead of barren as was sometimes the case in the past. The areas will be larger, and their locations will be based on scientists' opinions of where oysters will grow the best.
The larger size should make enforcement easier. Even though watermen are given a booklet listing all of the sanctuaries and their locations when they receive their licenses so they can avoid the sanctuaries, some have been found harvesting the sanctuaries. Because the sanctuaries have been so scattered, police haven't always been able to enforce the borders.
The new regulations dovetail with an effort to better police the Chesapeake Bay and increase penalties for poaching in sanctuaries. Watermen can now lose their license for an entire season if they're nabbed for a single serious violation.
The Oyster Advisory Commission has been urging the state to look at larger and better quality sanctuaries, as well as to beef up its punishments to combat poaching.
The second part of the regulations deal with aquaculture. O'Malley announced he was going to identify 600,000 acres to lease to people who want to grow oysters. While most shellfish worldwide is grown through aquaculture-Virginia, for example, has a $30-million-a-year clam industry-Maryland has always been cool to the concept of leasing bottom in its public fishery.
That began to change in 2005, and several recent changes in the law have made it easier for companies and individuals to get leases and work them. A handful of entrepreneurs are raising oysters and clams in Maryland's portion of the Bay and the Coastal Bays.
O'Malley said in his announcement that he would also leave some areas off-limits to leasing. He said that while the rules would create new opportunities that will allow watermen to "significantly expand their incomes," the new sanctuaries are initially going to hurt. The state predicts a 10-15 percent drop in the public oyster harvest.