August 9, 2010

Maryland public hearing on proposed oyster policy draws a crowd

Dave Love

Dave Love

Associate Scientist, Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Citizens descended on the small town of Wye Mill, Maryland at Chesapeake College Thursday, August 5th to attend the final public comment period for Maryland’s sweeping new oyster policies. The overcast and muggy weather provided a sober backdrop for intense discussions on how Maryland will manage the future of the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica)— a bivalve mollusk central to the culture and livelihood of generations of watermen.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff reviewed a package of eight regulations, ranging from expanded oyster sanctuaries, changes to public shellfish fishery areas, leasing for shellfish aquaculture, to a study of power dredging. According to the Southern Maryland Online, more than a thousand people have already commented on these proposed oyster policies, which were posted on February 2010.

Tom O’Connell, Director of DNR Fisheries Service defended the plan saying “there is broad stakeholder agreement that the status quo is not acceptable” and that the policies as presented will “make it better for the oyster, the oystermen, and aquaculture.”

Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica)

Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica). Image by Tony Weeg/Creative Commons

One of the main points of contention was over expanded oyster sanctuaries. Conservation groups see these sanctuaries, instead of lost resources, as preserves where oyster populations can grown and evolve natural resistance to menacing oyster diseases. An appropriate analogy is the creation of “national parks” or sanctuaries for oysters where they can flourish, in addition to “national forests” or public waters where oysters can be selectively, commercially harvested. Signs of natural disease resistance have been reported in Chesapeake Bay oysters, which highlights need for increasing oyster sanctuaries.

There is a growing sense of urgency to approve the state’s plan. Stephanie Westby, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called for “ new management strategies while we still have something to protect.” A member of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association echoed support for the new DNR plan and pointed out that rockfish and blue crabs have both rebounded from overharvesting following management the state, and oysters are next on the list of species that need saving.

Questions about the plan to increase oyster sanctuaries from 9% to 25% of remaining oyster beds and carve out private lease areas drew sharp criticism from one oystermen who asked, “why take my bottom from me?”

Marylanders have historically regarded oyster bottom— sea floor capable for growing oysters— as public property, while most other states on the East Coast, including Virginia, consider oyster bottom as privatized, leasable land. Transitioning from public oyster grounds to leasable plots in selected areas is a first step in developing oyster aquaculture in Maryland.

More than 90% of oysters consumed in the US are raised by aquaculture, so Maryland’s latest decision to promote aquaculture along with wild harvesting is consistent with, if not somewhat lagging national trends.

Oyster aquaculture was first introduced to Maryland in the late 1800s by Dr. William Brooks of Johns Hopkins University, with a warning that relying on wild harvesting is not sustainable. Instead Brooks declared the waters of the Chesapeake Bay as a “rich agricultural region” for oyster farming (C. Keiner, The Oyster Question).

To facilitate oyster aquaculture, the new plan includes special Aquaculture Economic Zones (AEZs) and their associated leases open first to watermen, with incentives to help streamline the permitting process and reduced permit fees.

During the public comment period, contention over the plan was at times unsettling, with hisses from the audience during regulators’ and environmentalists’ remarks, and on several occasions the facilitator had to calm the crowd.

One oysterman pointedly asked DNRs O’Connell, “why are you putting us out of business?”

Admittedly, the new oyster policies will set aside and protect some estuaries and tidal creeks that were public oyster grounds, with limited economic disadvantage for oystermen, and more for a subset of oystermen called tongers—a group who harvests by hand using long poles.

John Griffin, Secretary of DNR appeased the audience by saying, “we are trying to make decisions to rebuild fisheries… and maintain a resource to a level that you can thrive.” The hope is that some short-term losses will be rewarded with longer-term gains in oyster populations.

It is widely regarded that oystermen are going out of business because the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay has been in steady decline due to poor water quality, and a spate of parasitic oyster diseases that took advantage of populations weakened by overharvesting. By a show of hands, there were roughly 50 oystermen in the audience at the event, which is nearly one fifth of all oystermen— 250 in total— known to harvest commercially in Maryland. That number pales in comparison to number of watermen previously employed in the industry.

In addition to oystermen, industry groups were represented at the meeting and acknowledged that compromise was a part of the process. It appeared as though the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fisheries Association made a good faith gesture to come to the table to negotiate the plan, though in the end were unsatisfied with the final plan and could not support it. Notwithstanding, some parts of the plan were considered a victory for the oyster industry, such as a five-year study of power dredging at three oyster bars across the Bay.

Environmentalists and scientists regard power dredging as detrimental to the creation of oyster reefs—because scraping the bottom with metal rakes breaks apart three-dimensional oyster bars and scatters shells (see VIMS article). Watermen on the other hand believe power dredging is needed to maintain healthy oyster beds. This is just one example of how the latest public hearing pitted watermen against regulators, scientists and environmentalists in an all-too common “who knows best” argument over resource management.

It is obvious that all stakeholders care deeply, though a new path forward is need for oyster policy in Maryland. While the temporary sting of loosing some public grounds cannot be overlooked, the long-term benefit of the proposed plan does shine through as something that is in the best interest of all of Maryland’s citizens and the oysters.

– Dave Love

One Comment

  1. Posted by David Chamberlain

    As The first in Md. to seek a permit for rafting oysters for commercial production, it took a total if 5 1/2 years to obtain the myriad of permits to do a simple thing like growing oysters to sell. I applaud the effort the State is making to catch up with the other coastal states. You have to be in or on the water to tend your oysters on a farm. The same sounds and smells and the same wind in your hair or the cold bite of winter as your process oyster as the water men have always known. The transition may be hard but in no time they too will love it.

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