Op-Ed: Oyster Sanctuary Advocates Looking for “Black Cat” that Doesn’t Exist by Marc Castelli


The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) often boast about their sanctuary projects. They commend themselves for locking up thousands of acres and planting over one billion oysters in Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sanctuaries. Such a large account should earn ample interest, but in the case of the sanctuary projects, these banked oysters see no return or interest from the investment.

As indicated in their charter and declared at public meetings, the prior Administration at DNR and the various oyster partners such as CBF, USACE, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made it clear that sanctuaries were created to be engines of oyster reproduction. Promises and guarantees were made that the industry would benefit from these spat sets and see an increased harvest from the sanctuary program. Instead, these plantings have marooned hundreds of thousands of bushels of oyster shells which will never be retrieved for future plantings or cultivated for better results. The spat progeny are not even located in nearby areas. One needs to question the benefit for oystermen or for the value chain into the communities from which they work. There is no interest from the investment, yet CBF wants to further reduce harvest by tightening the management of the fishery and adding additional restrictions. CBF needs to leave the oysters that are in legal harvest areas available for legal harvest and both they and Riverkeepers need to conduct themselves in a fair equanimous fashion that guarantees access to all programs.

Charles Darwin once described a mathematician as a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat which isn’t there. The disappointment voiced by the collective opposition to the recent findings of the oyster stock assessment reminded me of that quote.

This search in the ‘dark room’ was a result of a reaction to an enhanced sanctuary management experiment that was agreed upon by the Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) which would turn four designated peripheral portions of a tributary sanctuary into a plant and rotational harvest program. The plan called for a constant planting of seed on shell in perpetuity at the industry’s expense. Planting would also have been carried out on the heart of the sanctuary that would remain a pure sanctuary, devoid of any harvesting. This more active investment by watermen working portions of the projected sanctuary would have increased the numbers of oysters in the designated tributary at no expense to CBF, Riverkeepers, or the state. It was seen as a win-win for all stakeholders represented in the OAC.

Unfortunately, the CBF did an end run on the very commission of which it is a member and betrayed the hours of work that went into the plan. The CBF led opposition went to the state legislature with a bill forcing a stock assessment that would stop the experiment from being implemented. Elementary school teachers, sports fishermen, recreational fishermen, and Riverkeepers voiced variations of the CBF opposition and, with no fact-based information, testified against such an active management plan. Although there was a consensus that any additional oysters in the Bay would be favorable, the emotional testimony included lip service about respecting the thousands of people dependent upon an actively managed oyster industry. The legislature chose to ignore the opposing arguments about the benefits of the proposed rotational harvest experiment and, despite the fiscal costs, gave in to the demands of CBF for a peer review study by a University of Maryland-led team.

Their ‘black cat’ was to have been a confirmation of their reputation for constant doom and gloom about oysters in the Bay. The stock assessment was going to be their final solution to their issues with the oyster industry and replenishment strategies. In its original vision, the stock assessment obviously and unfairly targeted just the industry. Much to the opposition’s chagrin, the state concluded that to be more scientifically accurate, the oyster sanctuaries needed to be included. The CBF led coalition thought it had found their ‘black cat,’ and rammed it through the ‘black room’ of a legislative session. The law passed and prevented changes to any sanctuary.

The assessment, however, did not produce the anticipated findings. It seems as if the parameters for the survey were biased from their inception. For example, the actual modeling mathematics was based on the Atlantic scallop which had little or no relevance to the Chesapeake Bay. Sanctuary numbers were not as good expected, industrial areas were not as bad as expected and generally speaking the mixed results did not indicate a dire crash that would necessitate further limits on any active management of sanctuaries, or furthering any new restrictions on the industry.

The writer(s) of the recent op-ed in the Annapolis Gazette revealed just such a bias. The headline, Our say: Oysters will be the big environmental fight when the General Assembly returns to Annapolis, was unnecessarily brash. The solution to the current state of oysters is evident to anyone who has spent years in the politics and biology of oysters.  Plainly put, oysters are being stressed at critical junctures in their lives by factors beyond the opposition’s control. There is a real need for all parties, and especially the industry, to seriously invest more time and money in the very same oyster programs that the opposition and the past O’Malley/Griffin/O’Connell administrations did away with 12 years ago. In addition to pursuing the environmental issues that threaten the actual Bay, these scientifically and economically proven programs need to include: more seed and shell plantings (using mutually agreed upon artificial substrates), researching more suitable artificial substrates that would take the pressure off of the dwindling stocks of oyster shell (for both sanctuaries and public oyster bars), more harvest reserves, and a return to rotational openings and closings of industry bars.

Several of these programs worked for many years.  However, the past administration decided to place all of their ‘eggs’ in the mega-sanctuary basket. There was no reasonable justification for this move, except a series of sincerely hoped for results from computer projections and theories. This political legacy, however, is still influencing oyster management. The Gazette op-ed does not mention these facts.

NOAA recently released the findings of their Atlantic coastal survey of shellfish. According to Chris Oliver, Director of National Marine Fisheries Service, “Our Northeast Fisheries Science Center recently published findings from a study focused on identifying the causes of the sharp decline in landings of the four most commercially important bivalve mollusks from Maine to North Carolina between 1980 and 2010. The four species are eastern oysters, northern quahogs, soft shell clams, and northern bay scallops.” In the past, overfishing was blamed for declines. However, this study showed that “habitat degradation from a variety of environmental factors, not overfishing, is the primary reason.”

CBF and its associates need to refocus on the water quality, sewage from Baltimore, better urban run-off solutions, air quality, and the environmental issues it can affect through better management of their dwindling funds. Attacking the industry is nothing more than grabbing the low hanging fruit as they have done for far too long. Great for attention-grabbing headlines, but not productive for Maryland.

Everyone needs to work on the oyster situation acknowledging that there is not just one solution. Let’s try to save the Bay for oysters instead of on the backs of oysters and oystermen.

Marc Castelli is a artist and photographer living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His work is focused on watermen, lobstermen, their workboats, America’s Cup racers and their yachts, and the extended families that race their log canoes of the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore. Marc hold a commercial fishing license with an oyster permit.


Write a Letter to the Editor on this Article

We encourage readers to offer their point of view on this article by submitting the following form. Editing is sometimes necessary and is done at the discretion of the editorial staff.


We're glad you're enjoying The Chestertown Spy.

Sign up for the the free email blast to see what's new in the Spy. It's delivered right to your inbox at 3PM sharp.

Sign up here.