Oyster report is in...

BaltimoreSun.com
Rona Kobell, January 16, 2008

Today, the Department of Natural Resources held a media briefing to unveil the Oyster Commission report, as well as new regs for yellow perch and a warning about summer flounder. Oh, and also to tell everyone who didn't already know that Harley Speir  -- he of the great name and long agency tenure -- has been promoted to acting fisheries director. Speir, who joked he'd been doing this work for as long as there have been fish in the water, has always been an accessible and easygoing guy, but it's not clear he'll be in the director's chair long, as DNR is launching a national search for both a new director and a new deputy director of fisheries.

Anyway, about the oysters...before the report came out, there had been a lot of talk that it was going to be groundbreaking and would call for an end to the vast amounts of money that have been shoring up the oyster industry for decades. Those programs are better known as "repletion", where the state spread seed and shell around the bay, and "reserves," where millions of oysters were planted in areas where watermen could harvest them. There was also some talk of the "M" word.

But by yesterday, when commission members finally saw a copy of the thing just a day before it was officially released to the press, it was clear that the report wouldn't go that far. But where it did go is in a different direction than two decades of talk on oyster recovery has gone to date -- it acknowledged that ecological and economic benefits are at cross-purposes, and it said we have to move to aquaculture.

It may not sound that dramatic, because the commission hasn't actually recommended doing anything yet. But it's significant in a few key ways:

1. Maryland has long talked about aquaculture -- the means by which nearly every other oyster fishery sustains itself -- but has been slow to act. State officials have enthusiastically helped those entrepreneurs that came to them by helping them navigate the once-byzantine permit system. The problem is that there are not many comers. Fewer than a dozen oyster aquaculutre businesses exist in Maryland. None are run by watermen, who have been cold to the concept.

But, as oyster biologist Mark Luckenbach told me a couple of years ago, aquaculture isn't the future, it's the present. Everywhere there are oysters-Long Island, France, virginia - there is aqauculture, and it is productive and profitable and sustainable. DNR officials indicated to me that it's time the state changes its lease-bottom system to encourage more of this.

2. The committee included some, but not all, of the usual suspects, therefore enteratining fresh ideas.  

Though Larry Simns and Russell Dize asked DNR to put another waterman on the committee, the agency declined to do so. So, representing the seafood industry were Ben Parks, a waterman who has been friendly to aquaculture, and Jason Ruth, a seafood processor. And from the science side, they did include Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Scieces, but they also had different voices, including Bill Eichbaum, a former Maryland environmental official who has been out of the game for years as a veep for the World Wildlife Fund. New people meant they wouldn't reach the same conclusions they always do, which is, basically, we need to restore oysters for ecological and economic benefits.

3. The report captured the complexities of oyster restoration, pointing out that you can't just institute a moratorium in a vacuum because the oysters are so far gone it wouldn't work. That's not to say the commission won't eventually lean towards one, just that it won't be the answer in and of itself.

So, while they didn't recommend anything groundbreaking yet, it will be worth watching where they go.

(Revised Dec 2007)