Six years after Maryland expanded its oyster sanctuary coverage in an effort to rebuild the shellfish population, some watermen are pushing to open the St. Mary’s River and Patuxent River sanctuaries for limited harvesting. Although still under discussion, their proposal faces strong opposition from environmental groups and some legislators.Gee, how did oysters ever come to cover the bottom of vast areas of Chesapeake Bay if there were no watermen to "cultivate" (read harvest), them?
The push behind the ongoing discussion to open some sanctuaries originated from a state decision in 2010 that expanded sanctuary coverage from 9 percent to 24 percent of productive bottom.
The St. Mary’s River sanctuary, located in its upstream portion, was a result of that expansion. The sanctuary encompasses about 1,300 acres, of which 9 percent is historical oyster bottom, including 10 historical oyster bars. In Calvert County, on the Chesapeake Bay side of Calvert Shores, Herring Bay and Plum Point, there are a little over 25,000 acres of oyster sanctuaries, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources Public Information Officer Gregg Bortz. Along the Patuxent River side, there are roughly 600 acres in Solomons Creek and 14.5 acres of sanctuaries in the Upper Patuxent River, which Calvert shares with the other Southern Maryland counties.
After a highly anticipated, five-year evaluation report came out from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources three months ago, some watermen saw an opportunity to float the idea of opening some sanctuaries to rotational harvest.
“Oysters have a history. If they are not cultivated, they die. They get smothered out from sedimentation,” said Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert County Watermen’s Association. “They cannot reproduce if they [don’t] have a clean surface to attach their larvae on.”
This happens every time an oyster sanctuary has any sign of success; watermen demand the right to harvest them, saying 'they'll go to waste if we don't', and all too often the politicians give in and let them take them. When they don't, watermen frequently sneak in at night, and take them anyway. At least that's become more difficult thanks to bay wide radar coverage.
Just a reminder of my oyster restoration plan. Ban fishing of wild oysters for 5, or better, 10 years, to see if oysters can show convincing sign of being able to recover in today's bay. If they show substantial recovery without aid, then go ahead with a plan to allow some harvest, while increasing the amount of bottom covered by oysters. If they can't recover on their own go ahead and explore the use of imported oyster species, while encouraging aquaculture for oysters.