Maryland watermen face potential cutbacks in their wild Chesapeake Bay oyster harvest starting this fall, as the state eyes new regulations aimed at eventually making the troubled fishery sustainable. But critics question whether the state is serious about ending overharvesting, and lawmakers could order a do-over.Scott Kettering and Robbie Tolson tong for oysters aboard the Miss Robyn on Broad Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River. (2013/Dave Harp)

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources told their Oyster Advisory Commission in August that they were considering reductions of up to 20% in the daily harvest limits and setting a shorter season, which has traditionally run from Oct. 1 through March 31.

They also suggested they might close some areas of the Bay to wild harvest for the coming season if available data indicates oysters are unusually scarce there or the areas were being heavily overharvested.

DNR officials even indicated they were mulling steps to curtail the recreational harvest of oysters, though it’s unclear how meaningful that would be.

The changes are being considered in response to a scientific assessment last year of the state’s oyster stock, which found the number of market-size bivalves had fallen by half since 1999 and that more than half of the areas open to wild harvest have been overharvested.

Bill Anderson, an assistant DNR secretary serving as acting fisheries director, said the department has yet to decide which, if any, of the changes to make. He said new rules would be announced before Oct. 1, using the authority under its new oyster management plan to adjust fishery regulations by public notice, with 48 hours of lead time before they would take effect.

In the past, changes to fishery regulations had to go through a more protracted process, which could take several weeks to months.

“We wanted to get things in place quickly,” Anderson said, “so we wouldn’t waste another year on moving us forward on our new enhanced plan.”

DNR officials say that with the management plan they drew up earlier this year, and which recently cleared legislative review, they aim to make the wild oyster fishery sustainable in eight to 10 years.

DNR officials asked their advisory commission to indicate which changes they support for the upcoming season.

But some members complained the department didn’t provide any information by which to evaluate the measures’ effectiveness. And they questioned how the DNR would know whether it was making progress because the state hasn’t set a target for optimal oyster abundance to maintain the population.

“I feel like we’re being put in a box here,” said Allison Colden, Maryland fisheries scientist with the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a commission member. She questioned whether state officials were committed to ending the overharvesting found in last year’s stock assessment. One of the options, for instance, called for closing areas only when the harvest reaches a level nearly twice what scientists consider excessive.

In an email after the meeting, Colden called the options discussion “a complete farce.” She noted that information presented to the commission previously had shown that relatively few watermen catch their daily limit of oysters now, and that most go out for no more than half the season. The regulatory options the DNR floated “are not likely to have any impact,” she said, adding that she suspected that was the DNR’s intent —
to present paper reductions that wouldn’t really affect watermen.

“Natural resources management decisions are not a popularity contest,” she said. “It’s up to the department to do their job to use the best available science to produce a sustainable fishery. And I think they have totally and knowingly failed.”

Conservationists and seafood industry representatives have been at odds for years about how to manage oysters, which scientists estimate have declined to 1% or less of their historic Baywide abundance after decades of overharvesting, habitat loss and disease.

With harvests continuing to decline in recent years, watermen have pushed to reopen some of the extensive oyster sanctuaries established by the state in 2010, arguing without evidence that oysters thrive best on reefs that experience some harvest. Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration proposed to do just that, but the General Assembly blocked the move and instead ordered the DNR to conduct its first-ever scientific assessment of the state’s oyster stock.

That review 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.

The DNR plan, unveiled last winter, lays out 22 strategies and 82 different actions for managing the wild fishery and aquaculture operations while also restoring the oyster population for its ecological benefits as water filterers and aquatic habitat.

But the DNR’s oyster management plan has proven controversial, as conservation groups have complained it doesn’t go far enough.

“You can end overfishing right now. You do not need eight to 10 years,” Colden said. “What you may need is eight to 10 years to rebuild the stock, but you can’t do that because we don’t have an abundance target.”

Anderson said DNR officials expect that goal will become apparent over the years as the state goes through a “spiral” management process of annually tweaking its regulations and assessing whether the population responds. He said regulators took a similar approach to stabilizing and rebuilding the Bay’s blue crab population, a pillar of the region’s seafood industry once also in trouble from overharvesting.

Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, who had been involved in the bi-state crab management overhaul, challenged that assertion, saying that biologists from Maryland and Virginia had developed a goal for restoration of the crab population early on.

After the meeting, Swanson said, “I can understand if they wanted to start with some initial restrictions. We know that we are overfishing now, and we need to at least begin trying to manage it. And I get that… But you should be focused on developing a target so you know your goal and you can be communicating that to all of your stakeholders.”

Watermen, meanwhile, viewed the harvest reduction options warily because they could come after five straight years of declining harvests.

“We’re talking about another reduction for the industry, another cut,” said Charles County waterman Bill Kilinski, a commission member, “and there’s nothing we’re going to get in return out of this.”

“Please don’t put me out of business,” pleaded Bob Whaples, president of the Dorchester County Seafood Heritage Association, who spoke up from the audience.

The DNR could be forced to go back to the drawing table next year. Earlier this year, the General Assembly overwhelmingly approved legislation requiring the DNR to revamp its Oyster Advisory Commission and develop its management plan by seeking consensus among often-disputing conservationists and watermen.

Hogan vetoed the legislation, accusing lawmakers of making an “end run” on his administration’s “thoughtful and science-based” efforts to manage oysters. But legislative leaders have vowed to vote to override the veto when they meet again in January.

In another sign of the deep divide in Maryland over oyster management, the Oyster Advisory Commission also split in August over whether to seek federal permits to dredge buried oyster shells from the Upper Bay and use them to replenish dwindling habitat for newly spawned bivalves.

Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Waterman’s Association, called for the DNR to seek the permits as a way to offset the current shortage in hatchery-raised oyster larvae.

Brown and others said that if there were more reefs built up with shell, natural oyster reproduction would more than make up for the shortfall, which is believed to stem mainly from extremely low salinity this year that caused larvae to die off.

Conservationists argued that the dredging should only be considered as part of a larger restoration plan using both shell and alternate substrate, such as granite or concrete. And they elicited an acknowledgement from the DNR that federal fish and wildlife authorities had questioned the proposed dredging because the sites are in waters where striped bass, another troubled species, spawn every spring.

Brown pressed the case, saying that the state must act to avoid losing a year in its efforts to rebuild the oyster population.

The DNR already has a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge up to 5 million bushels of old shells from a large reef outside the mouth of the Patapsco River known as Man O’ War Shoal. Though strongly supported by many watermen, it’s opposed by environmentalists, recreational anglers and even Baltimore County watermen, who have planted some oysters there. The state Board of Public Works has yet to even discuss whether to approve the controversial project, a necessary final step.

By a narrow majority of those present, 8 to 7 with one abstention, the oyster advisory commission urged the DNR in August to seek the new dredging permits. But Swanson said the real importance of the vote was that it showed how divided the group remains.

“That’s no way to manage a fishery,” she said.