Maryland public hearing on proposed oyster policy draws a crowd

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. Read More >