Wednesday, February 15, 2017

DNR Prepares to Hand Oysters Back to the Watermen

Maryland’s extensive network of oyster sanctuaries would shrink by 11 percent under a draft plan drawn up by state natural resources officials, which would open several protected areas to periodic harvest by watermen while setting aside other areas.

The draft, presented Monday night to the state’s Oyster Advisory Commission, would open nearly 1,000 acres of areas known to be productive oyster bottom to harvesting in the state’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay. It drew cautious praise from watermen and other seafood industry supporters, but questions from scientists and criticism from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Department of Natural Resources officials called the proposal a “fair and balanced” attempt to bridge deep division between watermen seeking to reclaim access to oyster reefs they used to harvest and environmentalists insisting the sanctuaries should remain unchanged, if not expanded.

DNR officials called the plan a “strawman” meant to help the commission arrive at its own recommendations on the fate of the state’s 51 oyster sanctuaries.
. . .
Watermen have lobbied the Hogan administration to revisit the 2010 decision by former Gov. Martin O’Malley to provide more refuges for the Bay’s depleted oyster population which, because of historic overharvesting, habitat loss and disease, is now estimated to be less than 1 percent of historic levels. Stressing the need to protect oysters for their ecological value as natural water filters and habitat for other fish and crabs, O’Malley expanded the state’s sanctuaries to encompass 24 percent of the viable oyster habitat in the Maryland portion of the Bay. Watermen say the expansion deprived them of some of their best harvest areas.

The plan presented by the DNR would declassify all or portions of seven of the state’s 51 sanctuaries, while creating three new sanctuaries and expanding existing protected areas in four other locations. The net effect of the changes would leave 21 percent of the state’s productive oyster habitat in sanctuaries.
What good is a "sanctuary" that gets turned into harvest-able bottom as soon as there are enough oysters to make harvesting worthwhile? Given that oyster populations are, at best, at a small fraction of their former abundance, getting back to a "sustainable" harvest would require more bottom put into sanctuary rather than less.

Time to roll out my oyster plan (again). Ban all fishing on wild oysters for 5, and better 10 years, without any attempts at restoration to find out whether the native Eastern Oyster can thrive in today's bay. If, after 10 years without commercial pressure, oysters have not recovered substantially, go ahead with planting of non-native oysters.

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