Waterkeepers: The Public Deserves a Voice in Oyster Recovery

Earlier this year, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released a five-year report, as required by the Maryland legislature, on the success of oyster sanctuaries. The draft report said that biomass and oyster populations in sanctuaries were going up while oysters in private fisheries were declining.

While the report came with a disclaimer that the findings were preliminary, they showcased that sanctuaries show signs of progress.

Oysters are hard little workers. Each one of these amazing bivalves can filter pollutants out of up to 50 gallons of water per day. Unfortunately, they are at just one percent of their historic population in the Chesapeake Bay.

Waterkeepers on both shores of the Chesapeake Bay are seeking public policy that balances the needs of restoration with commercial fishery interests.

Even with information gleaned from the five-year study — and a requirement from the General Assembly (in the form of 2016 legislation) — to follow the science on oyster fisheries management, the commission responsible for managing oysters may be unfairly tipping the scales toward industry.

Oysters are a keystone species. Without a healthy oyster population, it is nearly impossible to restore the health of the Bay.

The Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC), which determines and manages both public sanctuaries and private fisheries, is dominated by representatives of the seafood industry and watermen groups. There are scientists and researchers involved, but they aren’t permitted to take an advocacy position. As far as people representing the Bay and the environment, there are only two spots for our voice.

Moving forward on their charge to manage oyster fisheries, the OAC has set out three near-term tasks:

  1. Make a recommendation on the oyster restoration work in the Tred Avon that had been stopped by the Hogan administration;
  2. Pick the next tributaries where oyster sanctuaries would be placed; and
  3. Suggest changes in management to the sanctuary program.

The committee quickly arrived at a decision on issue one – the work in the Tred Avon would continue. Unfortunately, it came with a caveat that is nearly insurmountable. The watermen on the OAC would not let the work move forward using rock as a substrate on which to grow the oysters. They want the sanctuary to be created using oyster shell, which is scarce. Everyone knows that there is more shell leaving the Chesapeake Bay than coming in. There isn’t enough shell to build an adequate sanctuary.

The commission skipped over the second issue and asked for comments on changes in management. The industry proposed taking areas out of the 24 percent sanctuary, reducing it to 20 percent and restoring no other areas.

“The five-year report showed us that the sanctuaries are working. Why change it?” said Matt Pluta, Choptank Riverkeeper. “In addition, all of the proposed areas are Tier I top production areas”

The recommendation from environmentalists to the Maryland Department of the Environment can be found in the slideshow presented at the January 9, 2017 meeting.