State officials, watermen disagree on cause of record-low oyster catch

Maryland’s oyster harvest will drop to a new low this year, but state officials and watermen disagree over why so few oysters are being pulled out of the Bay and rivers.

The oyster season ended March 31 and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ preliminary estimates showed that this year’s harvest will drop to 70,000 bushels, 40 percent below last year’s record low.

Officials blame the continuing drop on parasites Dermo and MSX, which have wiped out oyster beds in 80 percent of Maryland’s part of the Chesapeake Bay since the late 1980s.

But the head of the Maryland Waterman’s Association said bad weather and too much government regulation are mainly to blame for the small harvest.

Larry Simns, president of the waterman’s association, said the situation is not as bleak as the state’s harvest figures indicate. Simns said the overall harvest probably dropped because more watermen turned to crabs and rockfish instead of oysters. Those who did go for oysters caught as many or more than last year.

Simns blamed competition from out-of-state oysters — especially from the Gulf of Mexico — for depressing prices here by as much as $5 per bushel from last year’s $20 average.

There were fewer harvesting days this year as well. The state started the season on Oct. 15, two weeks later than last year. And watermen couldn’t work when parts of the bay froze over during the winter.

About 550 watermen bought the $300 oyster permit this year because of declining profits, down from about 1,000 last season.

Simns said Maryland’s oyster harvest wasn’t as sparse as official figures indicate because much of the catch wasn’t reported to the state. He said his group surveyed 1,600 licensed oystermen and the results suggest that last year’s actual harvest was three times the official figure — as large as 500,000 bushels.

Many watermen are avoiding seafood dealers, who must report how many oysters they buy and pay the state a $1 per bushel tax, and selling directly to restaurants and other customers. “The scarcer the oysters, the bigger the number that goes unreported,” Simns said.

Pete Jensen, DNR fisheries director, said he agrees there is significant under-reporting, but he doubted that it was as great as the watermen suggest.

The total catch in the Potomac River this season has been only 250 bushels, down from 75,000 last season. Overflow caused by heavy spring rains and melting snow killed off many remaining oysters.

William Goldsborough, fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that this year’s meager harvests demonstrate once again that watermen and regulators need to abandon the “status quo” and try new ideas for restoring the bay’s oysters.

The past winter’s frigid temperatures and heavy rains may improve next year’s harvest because the parasites killing oysters tend to retreat when the bay’s salinity declines. But officials in Virginia and along the Potomac caution that the diseases have proven stubborn in the past.

VA environmental secretary targets state regulations

Virginia’s secretary of natural resources asked the Department of Environmental Quality on April 7 to examine state air pollution regulations that may exceed federal rules and burden industry.

Becky Norton Dunlop said she is following up on one of Gov. George Allen’s top campaign pledges: to eliminate what the new Republican administration perceives as excessive state regulations.

“There are companies that pollute on purpose,” she said. “The regulations should be for the bad guys, not to impede the progress of the good guys.”

Excessive government regulations are based on the false notion that renewable resources like trees and water are “stagnant and finite” rather than “dynamic and resilient,” she said.

The three areas Dunlop targeted:

  • A list of toxic chemicals regulated by the Department of Environmental Quality that is longer than a federal list of air pollutants.
  • Air pollution standards that industries must meet to obtain or renew five-year operating permits. The General Assembly passed the temporary standards last year to bring the state in compliance with the Clean Air Act. The state Air Pollution Control Board is meeting May 27 to consider making the regulations permanent.
  • Company trading of allowable air pollution emissions and technology that controls emissions. The federal government allows the trades, which give companies flexibility as long as they maintain an allowable average level of emissions, while the state doesn’t, Dunlop said.

“We want the DEQ to identify why these Virginia programs are more stringent than the federal programs,” Dunlop said. “Let’s see how we can make the Virginia law comply with the federal law.”

Officials: Deadly waterfowl disease outbreak has ended

An outbreak of avian cholera, probably the largest ever in North America, has ended after killing at least 35,000 water birds in the Chesapeake Bay, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Officials by mid-April were no longer getting complaints of dead ducks and other waterfowl washing ashore, and officers are no longer finding “freshly dead” birds, said John Verrico, a spokesman for the department.

“These are good indicators that the disease has stopped,” he said.

While 35,000 dead birds were collected and incinerated, officials estimate that tens of thousands more died. Only about 30 percent of the total mortality from the disease will be collected, Verrico said.

The disease broke out in the region in late February, sweeping through the coastal region from Maryland to North Carolina. Verrico said afflicted birds die very rapidly, sometimes only six hours after contracting the bacteria.

The disease spreads from bird to bird through ingestion of contaminated water, food, and possibly air.

A previous outbreak in 1978 killed an estimated 50,000 birds. Verrico said this outbreak is likely to be much worse.

Feds require full study related to Disney park

Federal transportation officials said April 18 that a full environmental impact statement will be required for planned highway improvements near the Walt Disney Co. theme park.

Such a study could take a year, possibly delaying the scheduled 1998 park opening. State and Disney officials pushing Disney’s America theme park had hoped for a less extensive, quicker environmental assessment.

Federal officials told Virginia Secretary of Transportation Robert E. Martinez that a full impact statement will be needed because improvements will significantly alter Interstate 66.

A Disney spokeswoman said the company had not been contacted by federal or state transportation officials about the study. The requirement for the extensive study would not alter plans to proceed with the $650 million project, she said.

“This is what we’ve wanted,” said a spokeswoman for the Piedmont Environmental Council, one of the primary opposition groups.

The timing of the park is important because delays could affect how quickly Disney can help repay the $130 million in bonds approved by the General Assembly last month. Bonds will be sold in coming years to pay for road work and other improvements.

The debt service on the bonds would be paid out of increases in state tax revenues connected with Disney.

VA county wants home moved under Bay act

Virginia’s Northumberland County is taking legal action under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act to force a man to move his unfinished house away from a tidal creek.

The case apparently is the first in which a homeowner has been forced to move a house because of a violation of the act. The 1988 act required eastern Virginia localities to adopt regulations to protect the estuary from land-disturbing activities such as development and farming.

The 1,456-square-foot unfinished house is 45 feet from Whays Creek. County officials say it violates an ordinance that prohibits building within 50 feet of the shore of the bay and its tributaries without a variance.

Commonwealth’s Attorney William J. LoPorto said he obtained a warrant April 12, charging Eugene Locklear of Maxton, N.C., with a misdemeanor for building the house within the 50-foot protection area.

LoPorto said he and building officials have been trying for two years to get Locklear to move the structure.

“On these things the county doesn’t like to come down hard on people,” LoPorto said. “We give them every chance in the world to get things straight.”

Locklear was out of town today and could not be reached. His wife, Carol Locklear, said the situation is “a mess” but declined further comment.

Construction of the house stopped in April 1991 after county officials issued a stop-work order.

If the Northumberland County General District Court finds Locklear in violation, it can require him to move the house and fine him up to $500 for each day the house stays within the environmental buffer.

The buffer was set in an attempt to keep pollution from shoreline development, septic tanks, and farming out of the Bay.