Open Houses well-attended as public comment period continues through April
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 22, 2010) Nearly 1,000 interested citizens have taken the time to review and comment on Marylands Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development plan since Governor Martin OMalley announced the new proposal in December. Especially noteworthy is that about half of those who provided input did so at four open houses hosted by Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries Service during the month of January.
The open houses were an integral part of our public process, said DNR Secretary John Griffin. Hundreds of Marylanders took the opportunity to learn about the plan, talk directly to managers, give suggestions and voice their opinions and every single comment is being reviewed.
Participants in the outreach sessions included watermen concerned about a change in regulations, participants in Marylands citizen oyster-growing program that are eager to improve the oyster population. people interested in learning more about aquaculture opportunities, and Marylanders who would like to see the sanctuary network expanded further than the plan proposes.
While the overwhelming majority of comments have been supportive of the plan, we are reviewing all public input, and are also actively working with stakeholders from the industry, sport fishing and environmental communities. We entered the process with a willingness to consider modifications to the proposal if the changes mitigate concerns and still achieve the Departments objectives, said DNR Fisheries Service Director Tom OConnell.
DNR has extended the schedule to allow adequate review of public comments, and currently plans to submit the Governors regulatory proposal in March. A final round of public hearings will occur in April and May. After considering all public comments, DNR will then adopt a final version of the proposed restoration and aquaculture development plan. If adopted, the regulation could be effective as soon as June 28, 2010.
As proposed, the plan will: increase Marylands network of oyster sanctuaries from 9 percent to 24 percent of remaining quality habitat; increase areas open to leasing for oyster aquaculture and streamline the permitting process; and maintain 76 percent of the Bays remaining quality oyster habitat for a more targeted, sustainable, and scientifically managed public oyster fishery.
Since 1994, the Chesapeake Bay oyster population has languished at 1 percent of historic levels. Over the past 25 years, the amount of suitable oyster habitat has declined by 80 percentfrom 200,000 acres to just 36,000 acres. Marylands annual oyster harvest has fallen from an average of 2.5 million bushels in the late 1960s to about 100,000 bushels a year since 2002, while the number of oystermen working Marylands portion of the Bay has dwindled from more than 2000 to just 550.
Throughout this process, our goal and the goal of Governor OMalley has been to protect jobs today while creating a more sustainable and growing future, both for oysters and our struggling industry, said Secretary Griffin. This is why the plan maintains significant opportunities to harvest wild oysters while also helping to stabilize and revive oyster populations, and provide a bridge for watermen interested in new aquaculture opportunities.
DNR understands that this plan may result in short-term economic impacts to the industry. To mitigate this impact, DNR is developing watermen work programs to facilitate restoration efforts. Funding for these efforts comes from $15 million of federal blue crab fishery disaster money and state capital funds, received in response to a request from Governor OMalley and former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, and advocacy by the Maryland Congressional Delegation under the leadership of Senator Barbara Mikulski. Watermen will be assisting the Department in rehabilitating oyster bar habitat and retrieving ghost (abandoned) crab pots this winter.
Aquaculture is now the predominant means of shellfish harvesting around the world; next door in Virginia it is already a $30 million business. University of Maryland economists estimate that over the next several years, our oyster aquaculture plan could create 225 full-time equivalent jobs and generate $25 million in annual economic impact.
Public comments by email or regular mail can be submitted to:
Attn: Oyster Open House
Tawes State Office Building
580 Taylor Ave
Annapolis, MD 21401
The full open house poster presentation is available at: http://dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/oysters/pdfs/OysterOpenHouseFINAL2a.pdf.
Source: Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR)