O'Malley unveils restoration plan for bay oysters

Expanded program includes Magothy, South

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, Published 12/04/09

Shannon Zirkle — The Capital Gov. Martin O'Malley announces the state's new plans for oysters, which include more areas for oyster farming and sanctuaries for restoration, but fewer areas for traditional harvesting by watermen. Behind the governor, from left, are Don Webster of the state's Aquaculture Advisory Commission, Kim Coble of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr., D-Prince George's, and John Griffin, the state secretary of natural resources.

With the oysters in the Chesapeake Bay dramatically depleted, Gov. Martin O'Malley yesterday unveiled a three-pronged plan that would limit harvesting, enhance environmental restoration and promote aquaculture to save the signature species. The plan, which has been in the works for years, would divvy up the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers into areas for each of the efforts.

O'Malley and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said the approach will finally turn the tide for both the beleaguered oyster population and struggling watermen.

"We can do better and we need to do better," O'Malley said on the docks of the Annapolis Maritime Museum, housed in the former McNasby Oyster Co. packing plant in Eastport.

The native Chesapeake oyster population is at just 1 to 2 percent of its historic levels. Oysters have been hit hard by disease, pollution and past overharvesting.

As the population of oysters dwindled, the Chesapeake Bay lost one of its great natural filters, because oysters have an unparalleled ability to gobble up tiny impurities in the water. The bay also lost its great oyster reefs, which attracted fish and other critters, and which were once so large and abundant that they were navigational hazards.

At the same time, oyster harvesting became more difficult for watermen. The number of active oystering watermen and the amount of money they make has dropped dramatically.

The redrawn plans for oyster activities would result in no substantial changes for Anne Arundel County's waters, said Mike Naylor, head of the DNR's shellfish program.

The Magothy and Severn rivers already are off-limits to harvesting. The South River is partially devoted to restoration and partially open to harvesting. The West and Rhode rivers are open to harvesting.

But across the bay, there will be a major shift.

About 36,000 acres of Maryland's portion of the bay and its rivers have significant oyster populations. Right now, about 9 percent of those acres are set aside as sanctuaries for oyster restoration.

Under the new plan, about 24 percent of areas with oysters will be cordoned off for restoration.

That means fewer areas in which watermen can tong, dredge and dive for oysters.

But it also means there will be more areas where oyster-restoration efforts for environmental purposes can be focused and possibly increased.

And the state is planning to make it easier to start up aquaculture operations, which are basically oyster farms. The state has a few million dollars available to help traditional watermen learn about aquaculture.

According to University of Maryland estimates, the new state oyster plan could eventually result in $25 million in economic benefits each year, as well as 200 new jobs.

The current annual oyster harvest has about a $3 million dockside value. With more oysters produced through aquaculture, that number could triple, which would have a trickle-down effect on seafood distributors, restaurants and the like, said Douglas W. Lipton, a University of Maryland professor who specializes in natural resources economics.

Watermen doubts

Maryland has struggled to make headway on restoring oysters, and there have often been conflicts among government officials, environmentalists and watermen about how to bring oysters back.

This latest plan isn't immune to that conflict.

While representatives from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and people already involved in aquaculture spoke favorably of the plan at the governor's news conference, leaders of watermen's groups were notably absent.

Ben Parks, an Eastern Shore waterman who serves on the state's Oyster Advisory Commission, was in the audience. He said afterward that the shift away from wild harvesting to aquaculture was pretty much inevitable.

He said that while he was not thrilled with the new plan, he was relieved that it didn't include what many watermen fear: a total moratorium on oyster harvesting.

"I think they've kind of suspected it for a while," Parks said of his fellow watermen.

He said watermen should keep "an open mind" about switching to aquaculture, but that it's most likely that only younger watermen will try aquaculture.

Around the corner from the news conference, waterman and Wild Country Seafood shop co-owner Patrick Mahoney Jr. said he wasn't impressed with the state plan. He, like many watermen, suspects that watermen will soon be pushed out of business.

He said he looked into leasing an area in which to raise oysters, but found it difficult to find oyster shell and oyster seed to plant the area. On top of that, it was expensive.

He estimated that it costs $10,000 to get a 4-acre underwater plot ready for oyster farming - a sizable sum for watermen who are scraping by financially.

The new oyster plan will officially be proposed in February and would be adopted as state regulations.

The DNR plans outreach meetings in the next two months. A meeting in Anne Arundel County likely will be held in early January.

There also will be a formal public hearing after the regulations are proposed. They could be final by May.


(Revised December 2009)