Governor O’Malley Announces Plan to Expand Oyster Sanctuaries and Allow Aquaculture

Governor Martin O’Malley announced on May 21 that the State would expand oyster sanctuaries and lease parts of the Chesapeake Bay for private aquaculture.  The plan has generated debate between those who view the action as necessary to save a declining oyster population and those who are concerned with the impact on watermen and communities that rely on the oyster industry.  As reported by the Baltimore Sun:

Vowing to restore the Chesapeake Bay’s disease-ravaged oysters and the industry that once thrived on them, Gov. Martin O’Malley announced Friday that he would proceed with a plan to more than double the state’s network of oyster sanctuaries while offering to lease vast areas of the bay for private aquaculture.

Speaking to a crowd of state officials, environmentalists and others at the Annapolis Maritime Museum — site of the last oyster packing house to close in the capital — O’Malley called the regulations he plans to propose next week “the turning point” in the long, troubled history of the bay’s iconic bivalve and of the state’s seafood industry. …

The head of the Maryland Oystermen Association, however, warned that the state’s move threatens the livelihood of the few hundred watermen still actively harvesting oysters because it would bar them from working many of the most productive shellfish bars or reefs left in the bay. Jim Mullin, the group’s executive director, also questioned the shift to aquaculture, calling it an unproven experiment in the state. …

State officials, scientists and environmentalists said the change was long overdue and needed to restore the bay. They acknowledged, however, that restoring the bay’s oysters could be a drawn-out, costly undertaking and far from assured. …

Oysters play an important ecological role, filtering the water and providing habitat for other aquatic creatures. But the bay’s oyster population today has dwindled to just 1 percent of historic levels, as overharvesting, habitat loss and disease have taken their toll. Commercial harvests have fallen by 90 percent over the past 25 years, from more than 2 million bushels to a little more than 100,000 bushels the season before last. The past season’s catch has yet to be tallied.

The number of watermen harvesting oysters also has shrunk from 4,000 in 1990 to 651 this past season, with just 389 reporting any catch. Officials have estimated previously that only 200 or so oyster full-time. The number of oyster processing businesses likewise has dwindled over the past three decades from 58 to just eight.

A May 24 Gazette article highlights watermen concern:

“It’s a grandiose experiment, and nobody knows whether it’s going to work or not,” said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. “They don’t have any proof that any of it will work. It’s just a shot in the dark.”

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