Harvesting on oyster sanctuaries won’t be allowed, at least for the time being, after the Maryland General Assembly reaffirmed that it wants to proceed with caution when it comes to the state’s famous bivalve.
A bill, HB 924, approved overwhelmingly in both houses, reiterated that the state wait for a scientific assessment of the oyster stock in Maryland waters before contemplating any major changes in oyster management. Governor Hogan took no action on the bill, so it became law April 6.
The legislature approved the stock assessment a year ago. But in the meantime, the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC), with support from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), had begun to consider a plan to harvest oysters on nearly 1,000 acres of oyster sanctuaries.
Sanctuaries are protected areas where oysters can’t be harvested. That protection allows the reefs to grow vertically out of the silt, to filter polluted water, and to create habitat for fish. Sanctuaries make up about a quarter of the oyster reefs in Maryland. The remaining three-quarters are open to harvest.
Scientists on the OAC, as well as 30 environmental groups, had repeatedly cautioned DNR and oyster industry representatives on the OAC that it was premature to consider opening sanctuaries to harvest without the scientific stock assessment, set to be completed at the end of next year.
Even current scientific information provides no justification for opening sanctuaries. A study by DNR in July found biomass had increased on sanctuaries generally. Oysters were growing, thanks to the protection. DNR cautioned in that report that the healthiest sanctuaries should be left alone.
Yet a proposal presented in February by DNR recommended that several of those healthy sanctuaries be “declassified” and opened for occasional harvest, as well as several other, slightly less healthy sanctuaries.
The passage of HB 924 indicated the legislature’s desire to continue a more precautionary approach than DNR and the OAC were pursuing.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) supported HB 924. With the oyster population at such precarious levels in the Bay, it makes sense to consider a sustainable oyster management harvest plan. The stock assessment will provide the science for that plan. All other fisheries have similar plans, but none has ever been developed for oysters.
Some watermen and others have blamed CBF for acting in “bad faith” by supporting HB 924. They say the bill was used as a tool to disrupt an otherwise collaborative OAC process. But we aren’t the bad guy here.
We agree that too many hours in OAC meetings were wasted developing a proposal to harvest on sanctuaries. We should never have started down that path—before scientists finish a stock assessment. The OAC could have looked into many other aspects of state oyster policy: aquaculture, harvesting in general, poaching, etc. We encouraged the OAC to look into a pilot program of rotational harvesting in the area of the Bay where harvesting already is permitted—but not on sanctuaries. Once the talks headed down the road of harvesting on sanctuaries, a process DNR Secretary Belton abetted, a clash was inevitable.
We also disagree that environmentalists had in any way agreed to harvesting on sanctuaries, only to renege later. Thirty environmental groups submitted a letter to OAC and DNR in December underscoring the need to leave sanctuaries alone, absent sufficient scientific information. CBF also presented a bipartisan poll showing that about 90 percent of Marylanders, across party lines, share those sentiments about sanctuaries.
Despite all this resistance, Belton asked county oyster committees for their proposals for how harvesting on sanctuaries could happen. Then, the secretary asked the environmental groups if they had any proposals for changing the sanctuaries.
Needless to say, that’s like asking someone who doesn’t like spinach to propose how he’d like to eat it. CBF kept our lips pursed. So did scientists on the OAC, and other environmental groups.
A few community groups stepped up with proposals for small expansions of oyster reefs that their volunteers had been planting with baby oysters over the years. They wanted official ‘sanctuary’ designation for those small reefs.
But no environmental groups expressed support for harvesting on sanctuaries. There never was consensus for this idea on the OAC. The idea came from watermen, seafood industry representatives, and legislators on the panel (all of whom generally strongly support watermen on policy issues).
In the end, CBF and other groups supported HB 924 because they weren’t being heard at the OAC, and by DNR.
That support wasn’t meant to disrupt. Just the opposite. It was meant to prevent a disruption of the state’s cautious, science-based approach to oyster management.
Tom Zolper is the Assistant Media Director at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.