More Restrictions Possible For Oystermen


ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 16, 2008) - Maryland watermen used to freely plying the Chesapeake Bay in search of oysters may be forced to accept new restrictions, according to a report released Wednesday by the state's Oyster Advisory Commission. The 2007 Interim Report Concerning Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Oyster Management Program was submitted today to Governor Martin O’Malley, the Members of the Maryland General Assembly, and Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Secretary John R. Griffin.

In September Secretary Griffin appointed 21 scientists, watermen, anglers, businessmen, economists, environmental advocates and elected officials to serve on the Commission, which is charged with advising the state on matters relating to oysters and strategies for rebuilding and managing the oyster population in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Commission has called for major changes in the state’s management of the Bay’s oysters, with a goal of healthy, expanding populations of oysters in major portions of the Chesapeake Bay within the next 20 years.

The report outlines potential fixes for the bay's chronically low oyster population, including an expansion of oyster sanctuaries and the introduction of bay bottom leases that would restrict where harvesting could take place. Forcing licensed watermen to switch from freely harvesting public areas to leasing acres of bay bottom for aquaculture would drastically change the nature of Maryland's historic oyster market, a possibility that has riled many Maryland watermen.

"We've had some slow years, decline years, and [watermen] have no money to invest in leases or to buy seed," said Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert County Watermen's Association. "The state is trying to get out of the oyster business and lease all the areas to corporations and oystermen - but probably just corporations, because we feel they're the only ones who could afford it."

Restructuring the industry this way would result in independent watermen giving up free enterprise to work for large corporations and hourly pay, or getting out of the industry all together, said Zinn. Zinn and others feel that their concerns are not being addressed by a commission that includes just one waterman.

But Commission Chair William Eichbaum said the group, established by the state in April, has been sensitive to the concerns of watermen and is searching for new ideas to revitalize the oyster population. The average reported oyster harvest has dropped recently to 104,000 bushels a year, compared to 2.5 million bushels a year from the 1920s to the 1960s.

"This might be the last chance to put together a plan, because the next time we try, or if we fail, there might not be any oysters," Eichbaum said.

While watermen agree that the oyster situation is dire, opinions differ on the best solution. "Their theory of stopping all commercial harvests is not the answer to get the oysters back," Zinn said. "Oysters need to be cultivated. Just letting them sit doesn't mean they're going to come back strong."

Historically, Maryland has used state and federal funds to support an oyster fishery for the state’s watermen, and to restore native oysters for their ecological value. The report found that federal and state oyster funding has primarily been used to support the oyster fishery, with less than a quarter of the funding supporting ecological restoration.

The report recommends a significant shift in priorities, with the majority of state and federal resources directed at restoring the native oysters not for harvest but for their ecological value. The report recommends some state investment in research and technology for oyster farming (aquaculture) to allow Maryland’s oyster industry to thrive and grow, but in a way that will eventually become self-sufficient.

“All around the world, aquaculture has proved to be more productive and profitable than wild oyster fisheries,” said Stephanie Reynolds, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland fisheries scientist. “Making a shift and investing in how to do that here in the Chesapeake Bay could result in a thriving private-sector industry that markets the Bay’s unique oysters and improves water quality at the same time.”

Though the ecological and economical positions seem inherently contradictory, commission members remain optimistic about striking a happy medium.

"There's more to come," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and a commission member. "We have to think of creative ways to help traditional watermen transition to the aquaculture industry."

Recommendations contained in the interim report are not official, Boesch said. Before releasing its final report, the commission will consider the findings of an environmental impact statement due in May that is looking at the possibility of introducing non-native oysters into the bay.

Any official recommendations for change to the industry will have to be gradual, Boesch said. "It can't happen overnight."

The importance of oyster population restoration has drawn the attention of state legislators and members of Congress. On Monday, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., presented a Calvert County research facility with $470,000 in federal funding to establish the state's second oyster hatchery.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) sees the restoration of thriving oyster populations as essential to the salvation of the Chesapeake Bay itself.

“To succeed, restoration efforts will have to be dramatically increased,” said Kim Coble, CBF’s Maryland Executive Director and member of the commission. “Change will be difficult and require careful transition from current management and fishery practices, but will result in a self-sustaining population with real ecological benefits without permanent, large-scale government funding. This will be a true success story for the Bay.”


-- Oyster restoration is a critical component of restoring and preventing further degradation of our Bay. The State has a clear role in restoring the ecological function of an abundant and self-sustaining oyster population.

-- A successful self sustaining, ecologically strategic, and enforced large oyster sanctuary program is essential to restoring the ecological function of oysters in Chesapeake Bay.

-- More restrictive harvest measures, including a moratorium, alone will not restore oysters and their ecological benefits without a significant, sustained commitment of resources focused on rehabilitating natural oyster bars, significantly minimizing disease impacts, and addressing water quality issues throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

-- The State’s role in the oyster industry is to manage the resource sustainably and prevent overfishing. Every major oyster producing area in the world is based on some degree of privatization. It is possible for the State to provide incentives and resources to facilitate the transition of Maryland’s traditional state-private and largely “put-and-take” oyster fishery to a privatized industry.

-- Increase in annual funding from the current level of $5 million will be needed during at least the first 10 years to support a revitalized Maryland oyster restoration program that includes increased hatchery production, increased oyster bar habitat rehabilitation, population monitoring, oyster bar habitat mapping and characterization, research and enforcement.


Feds Fund $470,000 for St. Leonard Research Center to Help Restore Oyster Population, Jan. 14, 2008

Maryland's Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC)

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