By CATHERINE KRIKSTAN
ANNAPOLIS (Dec. 18, 2009) - Over the past decade, billions of oysters have been planted in the Chesapeake Bay, pushed off of boats by the thousands to settle on sanctuaries and managed reserves throughout the watershed.
While these plantings are a much-needed ecological improvement for an unhealthy bay, it is unclear whether planting alone will be enough to restore the bay's native oyster population.
Habitat degradation, disease and overharvesting have taken their toll on the native oyster, reducing its numbers to just one percent of peak population.
But on the heels of a federal mandate to clean up the bay, Gov. Martin O'Malley has announced a multi-faceted oyster restoration approach that may provide several missing pieces of the restoration puzzle.
Experts have lauded the plan's focus on expanding the state's network of oyster sanctuaries and increasing the state's enforcement of harvesting regulations—a lack of which has hindered the productivity of oyster restoration programs.
"Illegal harvesting of oysters is really hurting our efforts," said Steve Allen, senior manager of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. "It's almost like we take two steps forward, and then if there's an illegal harvest, that's three steps back."
Since 2000, the Oyster Recovery Partnership has planted more than two billion oysters on sanctuaries and managed reserves throughout the bay, forming a unique bottom habitat for marine life and helping to filter sediment and other particles from the water column.
"Any oyster that goes into the water is serving an ecological purpose," Allen said.
Therein lies one of the most important benefits of oyster plantings.
"That shell wasn't there before. It wasn't accessible as a habitat before. But now it is, no matter where it's going to be. Whether it be on a harvest bar, whether it be on a managed reserve, whether it be on a sanctuary, it's going to be utilized by something else—oysters, crabs, barnacles, mussels, whatever—that is going to come into that area because that wasn't there before," said Allen.
The Oyster Recovery Partnership obtains oyster larvae from the Cambridge-based Horn Point Laboratory, an environmental research facility run through the University of Maryland.
The spat on shell are planted on restoration sites, concentrated in places like the Chester, Choptank and Patuxent Rivers.
Biologists sample the planting sites to monitor for oyster mortality and growth and disease presence.
When sanctuaries—which are restricted to any form of harvest—inexplicably lose oysters, illegal oyster harvesting is thought to be the culprit.
A recent oyster bar survey conducted by the University of Maryland's Paynter Labs detected significant population increases on all but one of the oyster bars that had been planted by the Oyster Recovery Partnership the previous year. Biologists attributed the inexplicable loss of more than 60,000 oysters to poaching.
Indeed, the Natural Resources Police, which monitors and enforces illegal oyster harvesting, relies heavily on notifications of poaching from both citizens and biologists like those at Paynter Labs, said spokesman Art Windemuth.
In recent weeks, officers with the Natural Resources Police observed two men harvesting oysters within designated sanctuaries in the Choptank River and Tangier Sound.
But poaching is a problem that is difficult to measure.
"Is it a problem? Yes, it is a problem," Windemuth said. "And I think the recent arrest of individuals (harvesting oysters) on sanctuaries indicates that. To what extent? It's hard to gauge."
Mick Blackistone, editor of the Waterman's Gazette, doesn't believe that poaching is a big issue. "If you get caught, you get busted," he said.
But he predicts the problem could get worse once the governor's restoration plan goes into effect.
Expanding sanctuaries from 9 to 24 percent of the bay's remaining quality oyster habitat might encourage watermen to cross into these restricted areas to harvest, as they find themselves with less good bottom to work with, Blackistone said.
"If some people get desperate, then they do things they normally wouldn't do," he said.
"But they also know, and will know from us, that of course they shouldn't do that. And the penalties will be significant," said Blackistone.
Under O'Malley's plan, the Natural Resources Police would use radars, cameras and other measures to lessen the chance that poachers might get off scot free.
But for many, it is not just illegal harvesting, but any harvesting, that warrants more regulation. So O'Malley's promise to ramp up the state's aquaculture industry, making more than 90,000 acres of land in the bay available to leasing, has been lauded as a step in the right direction.
Allen predicts that aquaculture will become a major component of the region's maritime industry over the next decade.
"Once we ... show (watermen) that they can make money doing oyster aquaculture, I think more of them will get on board and help out with it," Allen said.
But watermen have been resistant to change.
"You told us what you're going to do, but what do we do now," said Blackistone, who raised concern over watermen's ability to transition to a new industry because of the costs involved, from purchasing new equipment to leasing land to waiting for oysters to grow.
Not to mention the process of learning a new trade.
"If you take somebody that's 50 or 60 years old who's a traditional oysterman, that's a lot to swallow. I'm not saying they won't make the transition, but the state's got to be patient. This can't be done overnight," Blackistone said.
But for some, a reliance on a wild oyster harvest is a romantic idea that should be abandoned in favor of a more viable approach toward a sustainable harvest. And aquaculture is that approach.
"The experience of the last 40 years demonstrates that a fishery that is subsidized by the state ... doesn't work. It's declining. There are fewer people in it. They are earning less money, catching fewer oysters every year," said William Eichbaum, chairman of the Oyster Advisory Commission.
"And if you look globally, there's virtually no oyster industry ... that relies on a wild oyster population for substantial economic activity. So if we want to grow an industry, it's got to be based on an aquaculture approach," Eichbaum said.
"(Aquaculture) is what's happening in the industry, and unless Maryland follows, we won't be in that industry," said Eichbaum.
And a renewed oyster industry is intertwined with a renewed oyster population.
"There has to be an understanding between all these groups that we're all working toward the same basic goal of restoring the health of the bay. Once the health of the bay has been restored, their livelihoods will be somewhat restored. Aquaculture is just one piece of this puzzle," said Allen.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.