Forest Conservation Law Needs Bolstering
Marylanders Agree: Hands off Our Oyster Sanctuaries

The View of an Oyster Sanctuary

The following first appeared in the Chestertown Spy.

Oyster reef-1200
Maryland's oyster sanctuaries are under threat. Photo by Dave Harp.

The fate of Maryland's oyster population is being worked out in a church basement in Annapolis.

That's where the state Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) meets the second Monday of each month. This is the group appointed by Governor Hogan to review the state's oyster management system, and to recommend changes, if necessary. 

This past Monday night was perhaps the most important OAC meet so far. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) presented a proposal to open up about 970 acres of 'sanctuary' oyster reefs to harvest.

As I have on several occasions, I sat in on the OAC meeting. But it was difficult to sit still.

The makeup of the OAC is controversial, filled mostly with watermen and those who sympathize with their views. The direction the OAC is taking also is controversial. 

The controversy brings out the crowds. The OAC meetings used to take place in a meeting room at the DNR headquarters right next door. So many people began showing up, DNR had to move the meeting to the fellowship hall of the Calvary United Methodist Church on Rowe Blvd. Now even that room is often jammed.

Watermen feel the state has cheated them. Under prior governor Martin O'Malley the state increased the acres of productive oyster reefs set aside as sanctuaries—those areas that can't be harvested. O'Malley himself was guided by scientists' warnings that so few oysters remained in the Chesapeake that the status quo was no longer viable.

With input from everyone involved with oysters, the harvest industry included, O'Malley increased from nine percent to 24 percent the portion of oyster bars protected as sanctuaries. Three-quarters of reefs were to remain open to harvest. He also relaxed decades-old regulations to give watermen more opportunities to farm oysters rather than harvest them in the wild. In Virginia, oyster aquaculture is a booming business, but at the time of O'Malley's new plan it was negligible in Maryland. The idea was to boost watermen's earnings, and simultaneously to take out an insurance plan for the future of oysters in the Bay.

There's no doubt short term watermen took a hit. They had fewer places to harvest, although fortunately for them Mother Nature provided strong oyster reproduction for several years, resulting in strong harvests. 

Scientists and groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) where I work sympathized with the watermen. But we believed someone had to take the long view before oysters were wiped out completely.

CBF, along with a host of western and Eastern Shore groups such as the Midshore River Conservancy, St. Mary's River Watershed Association, and others, believe the OAC proposal to shrink the sanctuaries is ill-advised. At a minimum, the state must wait till DNR finishes a stock assessment of the oyster population. You wouldn't start spending more money without knowing what's in your bank account. That's exactly what the proposal would do.

It would open up 1,277 acres of sanctuaries for harvest in the following rivers and Bay segments: Upper Chester, Miles, Wye, Upper Choptank, Hooper Strait, Upper Patuxent, and Tangier Sound. It would expand sanctuaries by 300 acres in: Mill Hill/Prospect Bay, Eastern Bay, Lower Choptank, and Nanticoke River. The net result would be 977 fewer acres in sanctuaries, an 11 percent reduction in those sanctuary acres.

It's only 11 percent, you might say. But it's 11 percent of the most productive, healthy sanctuary bars in the Bay. And it is giving away these protected areas before we have any idea the true size of the oyster population. That's not scientific. That's not sound judgment. Harvesting oysters on those 977 previously protected acres could do irreversible damage to the fragile population.

A bill in the Maryland General Assembly, HB 924, would freeze any alterations in the sanctuaries till after the stock assessment. Oyster harvesting is the only major fishery in Maryland that isn't managed with a science-based plan. It pays us to wait till we have the science before we implement a major change such as OAC is considering.

The bill will be heard this Friday, Feb. 24, at 1 p.m. in the House Environment and Transportation Committee. We urge people concerned about the proposal to shrink sanctuaries to make their voice heard.

—Tom Zolper, CBF's Assistant Director of Media Relations

Stand up for oysters now! Ask your legislators to support a new bill that would stop changes to oyster sanctuaries from happening before there is sound science to back them up.


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Jeff Harrison

Letter to the Editor
I was honored to be chosen as a member of Maryland’s Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC). I believe my 40 years in the oyster industry and 35 years on the Talbot County Oyster Shell committee could help to prepare a recommendation for an Oyster Management Plan. This newly formed commission has a more diverse group than the previous commission meaning; this time they actually have involved the watermen in the discussion. All of us have one thing in common, though, we all agree that we want a healthy Bay and more oysters in the Bay. Watermen are some of the first environmentalist screaming about the effect of pollution before the clean water act of 1972 and doing oyster restoration work for over 50 years.
On Monday, February 13th, OAC looked at a Strawman proposal from Rotational Harvest Area. It was a compilation of plans submitted by both environmental groups and county oyster shell committees to put more oysters in the Bay. The meeting progressed smoothly and peacefully as the initial review of the Strawman proposal was discussed. I was looking forward to meeting with the watermen of Talbot County to see if we liked the proposal or would like to see changes in it. Unfortunately, within hours of our meeting the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) made a press statement that bashed the proposal claiming that 1,000 acres of Best Oyster Bars were going to be harvested by watermen. CBF’s Allison Probst, precluded that these oyster sanctuaries were the best productive bottom. She stated, “they are some of the healthiest of our state oyster sanctuaries”.
The fact that CBF failed to mention were a lot of these sanctuaries proposed for harvest (Maryland has 51 sanctuaries) had any funding spent on enhancing them in years, most have no oyster and little recruitment or spat fall. These sanctuaries basically have been laying fallow with no hope of recovery unless monies are used to enhance them with shell or spat on shell. Also, there was no mention that industry funds from the public fishery not taxpayer dollars would have to be spent. And last, CBF did not mention that the public fishery must exchange more acres of more productive bottom, not counting the 100’s of acres of productive harvestable public bottom that would be off limits for up to 4 years before harvesting. As Jim Wesson of Virginia stated, “after 3 years closure the rotation area are just like the sanctuaries a scientific fact that the environmental community dispute”. If this proposal went through as planned, it would end up as a net loss for Talbot County watermen in actual harvestable public fisheries bottom.
Instead, the CBF saw fit to rile up their constituency and, I have seen a flood of articles bashing the OAC proposals with none of these facts included in them. Why don’t we give the Oyster Advisory Commission a chance to weigh all the facts and let this process finish out before we throw it under the bus? I thought we were going to look at the science. This combative atmosphere does more harm than good when you are looking for a collaborative effort.
It seems that anything short of a moratorium on oyster harvesting is the only thing that will truly please CBF. The problem with that way of thinking is most of the shell used in sanctuary projects, aquaculture, MGO and public fisheries come from the public fisheries’ harvest of oysters. So, we are in this together. Let the process continue so we can move steadily forward to get what we all want: more oysters in the Chesapeake Bay.
Jeff Harrison, President Talbot Watermen's Association

Rachel Dean

Today I saw a photograph of my crew and my boat used to push the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's agenda for oyster management. I'd like to give a different perspective.

For over a week, the CBF has been feverishly trying to gather support for a Maryland house bill that would prohibit altering the management of public oyster bars and oyster sanctuaries. My family and I hand tong, patent tong, dredge, and dive for oysters in the Solomons area. When the public fishery was consolidated and sanctuaries were established in 2010, we took it on the chin. I realize oysters are a public resource and like others in the industry I waited for the results of the 5 Year Sanctuary Review. When it was released last summer, I read it front to back and sat down with my local county oyster committee to consider our next step.
The review left opportunities to alter the management strategies of public fishery areas and sanctuaries, so we came up with a plan. It wasn't easy. It took two meetings to come up with something that we thought was reasonable. Our proposal had three parts. 1. We asked to return to the public fishery a sanctuary in the Bay that had shell and brood stock removed in 2012. (Most concerned citizens didn't realize this happened after sanctuaries were established; surprisingly it wasn't in the draft of the 5 Year Review either.) 2. We asked for a piece of bottom in the Bay that was ranked as a tier 3; a tier 3 is not considered productive oyster bottom. In return we offered to invest in these areas. These two areas would return to the public fishery as power dredge areas.
Because of the sentiment about power dredges, we found more support for the third part of our proposal. 3. We proposed returning a piece of oyster bottom in the upper Patuxent River to the public fishery. The area was traditionally a hand tong only area. In short, hand tongs are like using two 18' garden rakes to blindly scoop oysters from the bottom of the river. It's hard work and less efficient than a power dredge or patent tongs. It disturbs the bottom less.
We took our proposal to the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission in October. We presented our ideas and other oyster committees gathered their thoughts. We attended the next two OAC meetings, but nothing was discussed about our proposal. We waited patiently and began conversations with other stakeholders. We discussed oysters over dinner with representatives from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. We presented our proposal at the Patuxent River Commission. We met with local scientists from the Chesapeake Biological Lab and Morgan State University. They listened and offered suggestions. We wanted to do things the right way. All the while I was amazed that we were able to bring different perspectives and knowledge together for one purpose, a more sustainable oyster fishery.
As we discussed gear types, disease, spatfall, rotational harvest, and sustainability, the Department of Natural Resources was kept in the loop. DNR took our original proposal and suggested alterations based on other stakeholders' input. The outcome was a "strawman."
When DNR presented the strawman at the February meeting of the OAC, we were not surprised that our river would also have two new, albeit small, sanctuaries. We had already negotiated with another user group looking to protect oyster plantings.
Now, after eight months and countless meetings the draft of the strawman proposes altering one a portion of the upper Patuxent River sanctuary. It proposes to divide the area into 4 sections and it would be managed on a rotational harvest for hand tong only. Each area would open once every four years. I can't thank enough all of the players who have worked with the Calvert County Oyster Committee to come up with a plan for the future.
So why speak now? The Chesapeake Bay Foundation continues to push a house bill that would effectively stop all of the collaboration and work so many people have done. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is well represented at the OAC table, and I would hope they would respect the OAC enough to let the process continue to work.

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