Scientists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science are part of a unique project designed to strategize new ways to manage an old industry. With the fate of the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population in question, stakeholders ranging from watermen to environmentalists hope to look past any differences to reach a common goal—enhance the shellfish resource and fishery.
This is the OysterFutures project, a five-year undertaking funded by the National Science Foundation that kicked off earlier this year. Its goal is to reach a consensus on strategies for oyster fishing practices and restoration in the Choptank and Little Choptank rivers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Diminishing numbers of the shellfish has sparked some heated debates in recent years between the people who make a living off oysters and the people looking to restore their populations.
The project brings together a diverse group of stakeholders from the oyster industry, environmental groups, and government agencies to make recommendations on ways to improve the oyster resource while integrating commercial and restoration interests.
Oysters are important to Maryland’s economy and cultural heritage, and for a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay.
Elizabeth North, an associate professor with UMCES’ Horn Point Laboratory, said it’s kind of like drafting a business plan that ensures the future is bright both economically and environmentally speaking.
“Hopefully with a better business plan, we will have a more profitable and a long-term sustainable industry that is based on rehabilitation and improvement of the oyster resource over time,” she said.
North is leading a group of scientists who are serving as consultants to the stakeholder group, collecting data, developing projection models, and observing the process.
Biologist Mike Wilberg of the UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory has been working on a computer model that will be unveiled at the next OysterFutures meeting.
Using simulations and projections from the scientists, stakeholders will examine how various regulations or changes in restoration practices may have different outcomes for oyster population, harvests, and water quality. They will weigh the difference between longer or shorter seasons, having more or different sanctuaries, or changing gear types.
“We’re using the model to bring together all the science about oysters and how they are likely to respond,” Wilberg said. “Building the model in collaboration with the group lets us all learn from each other, which is a very important part of the OysterFutures process.”
The group has already held meetings and a symposium, and will meet a few more times to explore strategies and solutions before presenting its findings to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in June 2017.
Whether the state will adopt any of the group’s recommendations isn’t clear, North said, but the process has already been valuable because of the people involved.
She described the discussions at recent meetings through OysterFutures as both strong and respectful, adding that this process of collaboration and compromise could be the key to creating more sustainable regulations, which in turn could lead to a healthier resource and industry.
“There’s a lot more common ground than I think the different groups are aware of,” North said. “It’s also uncomfortable because I keep seeing how many misconceptions that I’ve had, which are just going by the wayside.”
North expects the next meeting of stakeholders, scheduled Nov. 5 and 6, will be a strong indicator of the progress of those initial discussions.
“We really haven’t gotten to a point where people are trying to rate something, selecting one idea over another, which will start early next year, so that’s when we’ll really see whether this process works,” she said.