Oyster season may be done for now, but the debate rages on in Maryland over the future management of the Chesapeake Bay’s iconic shellfish.

Watermen and seafood industry representatives packed a legislative hearing room in Annapolis on Tuesday seeking to head off legislation that would require a study to determine sustainable harvest rates for oysters. Accusations of political chicanery, bias and deception flew during a four-hour hearing before the House Environment and Transportation Committee, leaving some lawmakers baffled.

Supporters of the legislation, which has already passed the Senate, told the committee that the study would fill a critical information gap in the management of one of the Bay’s keystone species. In addition to being the state’s second largest fishery, the bivalves provide vital habitat for other fish and help mitigate nutrient pollution fouling the Chesapeake by filtering its water. 

“Part of the reason our Bay is in the shape it is right now is there is not enough of them,” said Sen. Roger Manno, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the Senate bill. Lead sponsor of the House bill is Del. Barbara Frush, a Democrat who represents Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.

Watermen and their supporters, though, told the committee that such a study isn’t needed. The recent rebound in annual harvests — from a record low of 26,000 bushels more than a decade ago to around 400,000 bushels the past few years — is evidence enough, they insisted, that the Bay’s oyster population is thriving. 

Opponents accused environmentalists and recreational anglers who support the study of wanting to use it as a pretext to impose new restrictions on oyster harvests. And they alleged that the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which under the legislation would be tasked to do the research, is in league with those who want to curtail the public fishery.

“We truly believe this is a poison pill that could change the oyster industry forever,” said Bill Kilinski, a Charles County waterman.  He was joined by dozens of others from as far away as Smith Island and St. Mary’s County, with more than 100 people standing in the aisles of the hearing room after all 85 seats had been filled by proponents and opponents of the legislation. A second room was set up so the overflow could watch the proceedings via livestream video.

Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, warned that “this study … may open doors we don’t want to see opened,” such as an overall harvest quota or individual catch shares.

Once so abundant that watermen routinely harvested millions of bushels a year, the Bay’s oysters have been badly depleted since the late 1800s by historical overharvesting, habitat loss and disease. For the past decade or so, scientists have estimated the population is hovering around 1 percent or even less of its historic levels. 

The fishery is heavily regulated, with daily catch limits, gear and time-of-day restrictions and a six-month season that ends March 31. But the Department of Natural Resources has never developed a scientifically based estimate of how many oysters there are and how many are lost each year to all causes, which study supporters say is needed to ensure that harvests aren’t threatening the bivalves’ continued survival. 

Doug Myers, senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, cautioned that the recent increase in harvests doesn’t mean oysters are out of the woods.

“We simply do not know what percent of the population we are harvesting each year,” he told lawmakers.

But rural lawmakers on the panel joined watermen in challenging the need for the study and the motives of those backing it.

Del. Anthony O’Donnell, a Republican representing Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, held up a copy of the state’s oyster management plan and said state law already directs the DNR to conduct the stock assessment called for in the legislation.

“The study exists. It’s already on the books,” he said. The oyster management plan, which covers both Maryland and Virginia, was originally adopted in 1989 by the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program, and has been revised twice since then, most recently in 2004.

The DNR samples oyster reefs every fall to assess rates of reproduction and disease impacts, and from those data calculates a “biomass index” that officials say tracks “relative abundance” of the shellfish.

But Dave Blazer, the DNR fisheries director, acknowledged in a brief interview outside the hearing that the state lacks an estimate of its oyster population. Nor does the state plan set any threshold or target for a safe level of commercial harvest in the public fishery, he said.

State law requires the DNR to develop fishery management plans for all commercially important species, including oysters. The law specifies that those plans are to include “the best available estimates of sustainable harvest rates,” as well as “indicators that would trigger any tightening or loosening of harvest restrictions.”

The state’s oyster plan lacks that required information, said David Sikorski, government relations chairman for the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland. Without it, he contended there’s a risk the harvest could exceed safe levels and lead to another steep decline.

O’Donnell countered that Sikorski’s group and other advocates are pushing for the study in retribution for watermen getting the Hogan administration to halt federally funded oyster reef construction in the Tred Avon River on the Eastern Shore. Sikorski emailed after the hearing saying his group’s support “is in no way in retaliation of anything done by this administration.”

The Tred Avon near St. Michael’s is the third Choptank River tributary targeted by state and federal governments for a large-scale effort to restore the Bay’s lost oyster reef habitat. It’s also part of an expansive network of oyster sanctuaries created by the state six years ago, which watermen bitterly opposed. The DNR is now reviewing those sanctuaries, and watermen hope to reopen at least some to harvest after that study is completed this summer. The Tred Avon work, being undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is on hold pending that review.

O’Donnell and several others also questioned the fairness of UM’s environmental science center. The Southern Maryland delegate contended that he’d heard Donald Boesch, the center’s president, speak in favor of imposing a moratorium on wild oyster harvests several years ago, when both men were participating on the Oyster Advisory Commission set up by former Gov. Martin O’Malley. And one waterman pointed out that Boesch served on the Bay Foundation’s board of trustees.

Boesch was not present at the hearing, but denied in an email later that he had ever advocated a harvest moratorium. He also noted that he is no longer an active member of the foundation’s board.

Boesch’s center has taken no position on the legislation. In the email, he said. “I fully trust that, if so required, our scientific experts would do this in an objective and unbiased manner, as they have done with other fishery species.” 

He stressed that “it would be strictly a scientific appraisal, based on actual data on oyster populations and their growth, reproduction, and mortality rates, not on anyone’s preferences — strictly a by-the-numbers assessment.” How that information might be used in setting harvest regulations is best left to the DNR, he added, which could weigh not only the science but other factors, including impacts on watermen and the seafood industry.

While maintaining that no study is needed, opponents of the legislation said they might be able to live with it if the research was done by the DNR, instead of UMCES.
That prompted Del. Stephen Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat, to marvel at the faith watermen now have in the DNR, when they have long complained about the department’s catch restrictions, fishing regulations and tough enforcement.

“We have a repaired relationship with the department now,” explained Jim Mullin, executive director of the Maryland Oystermen Association. Watermen had felt ignored by the O’Malley administration, he explained, but now, “There’s an open-door policy and we have a seat at the table. That is rather refreshing, and (in) my honest opinion, I think some people don’t like that anymore.”

Another waterman pointed out that their longstanding distrust of the DNR eased after the Hogan administration last year replaced the DNR fisheries director and its shellfish program director. During his 2014 election campaign, Hogan had pledged to end what he called the O’Malley administration’s “war on watermen.”
Allison Cordell, legislative director for the DNR, said the administration opposes the study legislation.

“We are not opposed to good science and new data,” she said, “but this study creates a practical bar to good management conditions.”

Cordell then suggested that if lawmakers wanted to go ahead anyway, “we are not opposed to taking the lead in the study.” A number of watermen indicated they would be fine with that, because they expected the DNR would include them in the planning and execution.

But Manno, the Senate bill sponsor, said he couldn’t go along with that. The DNR has demonstrated its own bias, he said, by opposing the study legislation even after he amended it to remove a provision objectionable to fisheries managers.  He questioned why the DNR was again “mysteriously opposed” after its top official withdrew opposition to the Senate bill once it had been revised.

As introduced, the legislation would have barred the DNR from doing anything to increase wild oyster harvests until the study is finished in fall 2017 — language to which administration officials specifically objected. Manno agreed to strip the provision, and he said that DNR Secretary Mark Belton subsequently told him in person and again over the phone that the department had withdrawn its opposition. The measure passed that chamber on a 36 – 10 vote.

“There are a lot of politics going on here,” Manno said.

With all the back-and-forth, a few lawmakers expressed confusion, either seriously or in jest. 

“The water seems incredibly muddy to me,” Del. Andrew Cassilly, a Republican who represents Cecil and Harford counties, said at one point.

As a procession of witnesses spoke for and against the legislation, two got extra attention from lawmakers.  One was Elle O’Brien, an educator with the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy. She sparred with rural lawmakers over her support for the study and over what she tells schoolchildren about oysters. The other was Christian Sicilia, the 9-year-old grandson of Talbot County waterman Bunky Chance.

“When I grow up I want to be a waterman just like my grandpa,” the boy said as he sat on Chance’s lap. “If this bill passes, I can’t do that. Please, please don’t pass this bill.”

“Okay, we can end this public hearing right now,” quipped Del. Kumar Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the committee.

The hearing went on for another half hour, though. Afterward, Barve said a subcommittee would weigh the testimony and recommend to the full committee what to do with the bills. The legislative session is set to end at midnight Monday.