|Watermen dredging oysters in the Patuxent River|
In 1985, Maryland did something that had previously been considered unthinkable. It closed state waters to the harvest of rockfish, more widely known as striped bass. Then-Gov. Harry Hughes was denounced for putting commercial fishermen and charter boat operators out of business. But he and his Department of Natural Resources held firm. Striped bass landings had fallen so far — from more than 5 million pounds a year to less than 400,000 pounds — that officials believed the species might not remain viable if such a drastic step was not taken.Although, to be fair, we seem to be on a downward slope on rockfish again.
What happened next? Within three years, the moratorium was lifted. The population bounced back, and spawning success wasn’t cut short by hooks or gill nets. And while there are still issues with Chesapeake Bay rockfish and concerns about its future, landings remain around 1.3 million pounds per year. Fisheries managers proudly point to that difficult choice, as well as the strict management plans that followed, as the bay’s greatest success story.
That lesson ought to be kept in mind as the Hogan administration — and perhaps the General Assembly — turn their attention to another native species that is facing similar challenges from pollution, loss of habitat and overfishing: the Chesapeake Bay’s eastern oyster. Like rockfish, they were once abundant, and their decline has been even more dramatic. At one time, watermen pulled as many as 20 million bushels of oysters out of the bay. Last year, Maryland waters produced just over 100,000 bushels, and it’s expected to be no better this year.I would be very surprised if a 3 year moratorium on fishing wild oysters would be sufficient to get the populations back up to where a self sustaining fishery is possible. At this point, we don't even know if Chesapeake oysters are capable of establishing a self sustaining population on their own in today's changed Bay. Remember Fritz's oyster plan. A moratorium on wild oyster harvesting for 5 and maybe even 10 years, with no added restoration, to see if oysters are still capable of sustaining and expanding their populations in the current Bay. If not, it's OK to import non-native oysters, like Crassostrea ariakensis, and encourage more aquaculture.
Even more alarmingly, oysters haven’t had a notable spat set — meaning an abundance of larvae developing into juvenile oysters — since 2012. And while recent spat sets that have been average, at best, are driven as much by temperature, salinity and wind as they are by factors within human control, the loss of breeding stock is alarming. The risk of over-harvesting in any given year is high. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, more than half of Maryland’s wild oyster beds are currently over-harvested.
Unfortunately, instead of looking for additional ways to protect the dwindling oyster supply — or even developing a robust plan to manage oysters — the state has taken a haphazard approach of supporting sanctuary reefs, shell planting, aquaculture, oyster hatcheries and other means to augment wild stocks without reducing the fishing pressure sufficiently. The danger is that Maryland is inching toward what some derisively call a “put-and-take” approach where taxpayers pay to stock baby oysters only to have them removed from state waters by watermen. In essence, it’s a way of underwriting a relatively few harvesters without actually restoring anything.
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We appreciate the pain the loss of oysters has inflicted on watermen and their communities, particularly on the Eastern Shore, over the years. But the path Maryland is going down right now appears to be unsustainable. An oyster moratorium would certainly be painful — just as it was for rockfish three decades ago — but it deserves serious consideration. The state can’t afford to sink millions of dollars more into a fishery that benefits a relative few, but it can be justified as part of the broader Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.