Op-Ed: What’s the Truth about Maryland’s HB 924? By Marc Castelli


“In general, Americans view ignorance, particularly of public policy, as a virtue”. (The Death of Expertise, T. Nichols). Pretty harsh words, but if you review the tactic of panic that Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently used to push its agenda in House Bill 924, you might understand the relevance of the quote.

The oyster issue has been and apparently will always be driven by a select few using the media to achieve their goals, and who seem to find it difficult to separate fact from fiction or research a balanced story, for the benefit of their readers. It has become a tool of shrill advocacy and not for reportage. “Even the nature of coverage becomes complicated; social scientists have shown that repetition of a false statement, even in the course of disputing it, often increases the number of people who believe it.” (The Death of Expertise, T. Nichols). “For Trump (and CBF et al.) shamelessness is not just strength, it’s a strategy”. (From the Editor, Time Magazine, 4-3-17). The modern media with so many options tailored to particular views is a huge exercise in confirmation bias. (The Death of Expertise, T. Nichols). If the media consistently refuses to print the truth about oysters and oyster issues, it must have an agenda. What is it?

Many people and the media have been blind to a sea change in the attitudes of watermen towards science and expertise. Marine biologists have been slow to recognize a need to fill in the blanks of science with the empirical knowledge gathered by generations of watermen. In the past, it was the watermen who loudly voiced an outright rejection of science. Watermen seemed to claim that they knew everything there was to know about whatever resource they were actively harvesting. They thought that if a scientist tried to make a living from what he/she knew about a resource they would starve.

Empirical knowledge is powerful stuff, especially when one depends on it to make a living. But it is not the whole picture. On the other hand, scientists usually reject anecdotal information until oddly enough they quote it. HB 924 is an excellent example of this sea change. The bill’s purpose was to permanently set sanctuary boundaries. Its proponents used hysteria, experts quoting opinions about facts, partial facts, innuendoes, and falsehoods to push this bill. Most of our politicians, who we used to think of as guardians of truth, should have been protecting the truth. Instead, they caved into less than truth and non- truth. Now it is watermen who want to know where the science is.

The Baltimore Sun and Bay Journal keep referring to the OAC as predominantly made up of industry and industry-favoring members. “In fact, the commission is composed of 24 members. Eight members are either scientists or members of specific environmental organizations (CBF among them). Eight members are from the oyster industry. There are five legislators, two Maryland senators, two House members and one county commissioner. The remaining three are private citizens which include the two co-chairs”. (Letter to Sen. Miller from the OAC). Yet Mr. Wheeler (now a managing editor on the Bay Journal) insists on describing the commission as having,” half of its members as representing or sympathetic to the oyster industry”. Why does Mr. Wheeler persist in this mischaracterization of the OAC? He never once criticized the first OAC when it obviously favored the science and environmental side. The original OAC membership was heavily weighted towards the environmental and ecological side. The chair was the past president of WWF, then there was CCA and MSSA each had a seat, 1 from CBF, 1 from NOAA, 1 from ORP, 1 from Nature Conservancy, 4 seats from the U. of M, 2 scientists, 1 senator, 2 delegates, 1 real estate developer (!), 1 technocrat, I MWA representative and one sea food buyer (for a total of only 2 industry members). There is no comparison. The current incarnation of the OAC is far more balanced, and representative and any recommendations coming from it are more inclusive. It is clear that Mr. Wheeler has an agenda that is just an exercise in confirmation bias. What is his agenda? CBF and The Baltimore Sun both loudly “blamed” the DNR for having “created” the strawman proposal. In truth, the department serves only to facilitate meetings and conferences for the OAC. It has no seat at the table or sway in the discussions.

Apparently, CBF, U of M, CCA, RiverKeepers and school teachers did not like the legislature’s amendment of placing of the 2016 stock assessment bill’s (SB 937) process in the hands of the DNR. They wanted it controlled by the U. of M. and CBF. SB937 did not want to include any sanctuary oysters in the stock assessment. The bill was aimed at one specific user group, the industry, with no regard for facts. U. of M. and C.B.F. along with something called the Oyster Advocacy Group returned in 2017 with a vengeance to re-tweak that bill, which became HB 924. By sheer force of largely ignorant hysterics, they forced the more than compliant legislature to agree to circumvent the OAC and make the sanctuary boundaries for all 51 sanctuaries permanent. This despite a task assigned to the OAC by the legislature to review sanctuaries after five years. The department is now at that mark.

Not once did the CBF or its followers use any facts or science to prove the point that all sanctuaries were in danger, which was shamelessly insinuated. Despite numerous requests from only a handful of senators and delegates during the senatorial hearings, the CBF, U of M and the other groups did not produce one iota of hard fact to prove their case. “The collapse of the relationship between experts and citizens is a dysfunction of democracy itself” (The Death of Expertise, T. Nichols). Nor did the remaining senators request the proof. They just knuckled under to the wide spread Trump induced panic of losing federal bay clean up funds. Instead of respecting the procedure the CBF and its surrogate, The Oyster Advocacy Group, did an end run on the Oyster Advisory Commission, which was discussing the sanctuaries as tasked by the legislature.

The OAC is a state-mandated commission appointed to find solutions to the oyster issues of Maryland. Watching our country’s and now our state legislature’s slavish adherence to partisan divisiveness has been a major disappointment for me. House Bill 924 did expose one thing. It proved to the Maryland watermen that the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have only been paying lip service to the idea that Maryland’s sea food industry is important. Dialogue between experts and laypeople is essential to a functioning democracy. The politicians believe that their own and the bill’s supporters biased opinions are as relevant if not more important than informed views. “Studies show that those with the least knowledge are the most confident in their opinions”. (The Death of Expertise ,T. Nichols)

I was told many years ago when I was a believer in our system of legislative representation, that if you are explaining something to a legislator, you are losing.” Sentiment against experts is what influenced the Brexit vote and the election of our current president”. (The Death of Expertise, T. Nichols). If our elected legislators, in chambers composed of Democrat majorities, would realize that they are as guilty of the political power shenanigans our president is they might have walked away from the bill or at least allowed for the strawman proposal to proceed for discussion in the OAC, where it might have survived, been modified ( toned down), or even ended. But the process was obstructed and abruptly ended.

The OAC proposed portions of sanctuary areas in the Upper Chester River and the Upper Patuxent. Both had few oysters but had the oyster bottom that was going fallow. A majority of industry members initially wanted to open up portions of the big three sanctuaries, where tens of millions have been spent. There were many emotional discussions in the OAC about the infeasibility of such an action. Ultimately watermen realized that when the federal government steps into Maryland waters and spends its budget on restoration, the federal government controls that river. The state of Maryland loses control over it. County oyster committees were asked to submit ideas about other sanctuaries. Few responded. Some committees came up with unrealistic ideas while others respected the process and sent in workable ideas that in part became the basis for the OAC plan. Not just the industry but each group represented by members in the OAC was asked to present proposals based on constituent input. Ecologists, environmentalists, restorationists, replenishment advocates all presented proposals.

Having gone through difficult and sometimes very contentious small group meetings and full membership commission meetings the OAC arrived at a compromise that would in effect add millions upon millions of oysters to just a few tributaries that have barely functioning ignored sanctuaries and have none of the big dollar investments. If the CBF had truthfully represented the proposal, the politicians would have seen that it was to improve only six of the 46 remaining sanctuaries. This would have been accomplished by taking certain low-yield areas and creating what would be hybrid harvest reserves. The change would involve planting oysters in perpetuity in exchange for the ability to sequentially open and close 4 zones for harvest. This harvesting would be supervised and done in a severely limited fashion. The watermen would plant after each harvesting, and pay for these oysters with their own funds. What can possibly be wrong with adding millions upon millions of oysters each year to the Bay and tributaries at no expense to the state? CBF alarmist Prost, and Chester Riverkeeper Hardesty refused to recognize the benefits or acknowledge that not one of the Big Three (of the planned 5) sanctuaries would have seen any such redrawing of boundaries. They would proceed unaffected by the OAC proposals. Nor would they benefit from the perpetual planting by the industry that had been proposed. Those areas were never on the table for change. The bill’s supporters refused to acknowledge the benefits of this plan to the ignored sanctuaries. It could have been used to benefit many of the 46 remaining sanctuaries that do not get any planting, bar cleaning or active management.

House Bill 924 was a reaction to this misunderstood and mischaracterized proposal. Its sponsors had members who were party to the decision to create a strawman proposal that would benefit all user groups. Then the panic mongers stepped in. The Baltimore Sun’s reporters raised the temperature with outrageous and misleading headlines about DNR approval of the destruction of sanctuaries by opening hundreds of thousands of sanctuary acres for harvesting. The panic mongers went ballistic over the proposal to redraw two sanctuary boundaries. CBF cried foul in the Bay Journal and the Baltimore Sun which printed articles and opinion editorials that went even further to mislead the public. CBF actually posted a misleading alert to all of its members and the public about the loss of habitat, and sanctuary oyster bars represented by the random harvesting of sanctuary oysters. Just as false was the claim that some of the most productive sanctuaries were at risk from this proposal. CBF and its progeny The Oyster Advocacy Group then sent the very same hysterical outburst to the governor. “Experts contribute to the problem when they comment publicly on issues outside of their areas of expertise”. (The Death of Expertise, T. Nichols)

We the public have been sold a pig in poke by the CBF and have been ill served by a majority of our elected legislators. This embrace of self-righteous ignorance bodes ill for all of our futures. Below is a list of questions that were asked at the Senate hearing but were never answered. Some were not even allowed to be heard. These questions are on the record as having been ignored.

Maybe you the readers can ask CBF, the Baltimore Sun, The Bay Journal and the Oyster Advocacy Group why they chose rhetoric, hysteria and, false facts, to stop a project that would have benefitted all user groups?

1. Where is the evidence that would prove the sanctuary boundaries were scientifically drawn? What were the parameters used in deciding the boundaries? Why should they be considered sacrosanct?

2. How much money have River Keepers, the CBF, the U. of M. spent on actively managing the 46 other sanctuaries in Maryland?

3. Why did CBF do an end run on its own co-members who sit on the OAC by going to the state legislature to stop the OAC’s strawman proposal?

4. Where is the hard science to prove that Harris Creek Sanctuary is such an unqualified success? Why was this even brought up at the hearing? Harris Creek was never included in the OAC proposal.

5. Why did the chair of the Senate Environmental Committee keep stating that she was waiting for the stock assessment survey to come in before any further discussion on hybrid harvest reserves/sanctuaries would be heard? What special knowledge is she expecting that would prove the OAC process (mandated by the legislature) should be halted?

6. Why was the just completed DNR annual fall oyster survey pointedly ignored by the Senate committee?

7. Why do all of the environmental and ecological groups feel that proposing, even more, studies instead of acting on the mountains of information already available is a good strategy?

8. Why do politicians feel that voting for more surveys and studies is good public policy? Perhaps it is that there is no political risk in constantly proposing more studies. The chair of the Senate committee hearing the bill plainly ignored the volumes of already available information in order to do the more politically expedient solution of waiting for the results of one more study. Why?

Marc Castelli is an artist who lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.


Letters to Editor

  1. Pete Buxtun says:

    The author says “The bill’s purpose was to permanently set sanctuary boundaries.” but the actual text of the bill states that the purpose of the bill is “FOR the purpose of prohibiting the Department of Natural Resources from reducing or altering the boundaries of certain oyster sanctuaries until the Department develops a certain plan…”.

    “until the Department develops a certain plan”, is decidedly different than “permanently set sanctuary boundaries.”

    Who is it using “hysteria, quoting opinions about facts, partial facts, innuendoes, and falsehoods to push” an agenda again?


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