By JAMES B. HALE
ANNAPOLIS (Dec. 5, 2009) - Gov. Martin O'Malley announced plans to drastically change Maryland's oyster industry Thursday in the hopes of stimulating the state's economy and growing the dwindling oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay.
The three-pronged proposal includes plans to increase Maryland's network of oyster sanctuaries, expand areas available for aquaculture and private leasing of oyster harvesting, and protect current fisheries from leasing.
Because oysters naturally filter pollutants out of the water, a larger population might also mean a cleaner bay.
If the new strategies work, the state's oyster industry could make up to $25 million more annually within five years, and would provide 225 new jobs, said Doug Lipton, a resource economist at the University of Maryland.
But the plans might also endanger the jobs of Maryland watermen, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.
Simns said lawmakers didn't get his input until Wednesday, when they said chances of changing legislation were slim. He said the waters being used for sanctuaries and aquaculture will leave the watermen with virtually no good places to harvest.
"It would take the watermen right out of business," said Simns.
O'Malley said the state would work with watermen on the issue and stressed the importance of helping the economy.
"Protecting the population not only matters for the bay, it matters for the economy," O'Malley said. "Our economy needs this shot in the arm. Our watermen need this shot in the arm."
One of the cornerstones of the plan is the state's decision to harvest with aquaculture, which O'Malley said was inspired by seeing Virginia's success with the method.
The move could result in nearly 150 oyster aquaculture operations in the state, expanding the industry, said O'Malley.
Ken Paynter, an associate professor with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said aquaculture has been working well in waters around the world for years.
The method is similar to regular farming. Small oysters are "planted" at the bottom of the water and allowed to grow naturally to their full size. Then, they are harvested and sold, he said.
"I think that the potential for Maryland to produce oysters using an aquaculture approach is huge," Paynter said.
Oysters are already planted in the wild in the bay, but regulations allow them to be harvested more freely. By using aquaculture, they can grow in a more controlled setting that might result in better and more oysters, he said.
State officials also plan to maintain more than 150,000 acres of oyster bars currently open to wild oyster fishing. The area open to wild fishing, however, will be reduced from 91 to 76 percent of the bay's remaining quality oyster habitat.
The rest of the waters currently used for open fishing would join the state's network of oyster sanctuaries, where oysters are allowed to live and grow naturally, free from harvesting.
The increase brings the size of sanctuaries to 24 percent of remaining quality oyster habitat in hopes of protecting the dwindling population that has decreased by 70 percent since 1994.
O'Malley said the plans are a result of a six-year study of oyster restoration options in the bay. Discussion first started at a 1993 meeting of 40 stakeholder groups that wanted oysters to once again have a great economic and environmental impact on the bay.
O'Malley said there will be public forums to discuss any issues residents may have, but otherwise the state will enact the plan by May 2010.
But Simns said unless lawmakers make some changes, they will have a fight on their hands. Watermen need back some land to be designated for sanctuaries, and need financial help to counteract the high price tag of using aquaculture, he said.
"It's not going to benefit the watermen," said Simns. "They gotta get on the stick and help us because we can't wait."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.