The Latest Twist in Maryland’s Oyster Wars

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If there are no oysters left in the Chesapake Bay, doesn't that mean there is no oyster harvesting? Graph source: NOAA
No oysters, no jobs? Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The widely-anticipated Maryland Department of Natural Resource’s “Oyster Report” reveals that the five-year-old Chesapeake Bay oyster sanctuary experiment is working. Since 2010, oyster sanctuary harvests doubled, while public fishery oyster bed numbers declined by one-third. But, it’s oyster wars as usual: to fish or not to fish?

Since 2010 when O’Malley’s administration tripled the area that is off limits to oyster-harvesting, tensions between watermen and conservationists have only increased. As reported in the Bay Journal, since 2010, roughly 9,000 acres of the optimal oyster land has been off limits to oyster harvesting, leaving oyster watermen 27,000 acres.

Q: Where are the oysters? A: We Ate Them All

Most Maryland children were taught two oyster facts in their mandatory Chesapeake Bay science unit. The first is that oysters are the bay’s natural cleaning crew and filter out contaminants. The second is that the explorer John Smith famously wrote about his 1608 Chesapeake Bay voyage that “oysters lay as thick as stones.” 

O’Malley’s 2010 oyster regulation rewrite was trying to solve a large eco-crisis. With excessive Chesapeake Bay pollution wiping out sea grasses and causing huge dead zones, Chesapeake Bay fishery ecosystems, including oysters, were wiped out. Fewer oysters means less natural clean up. Since 1880, humans have also fished oysters to death as the graph above sadly illustrates. Also wiped out were fishing-related jobs. Add oyster diseases into the story, and we’ve struggled since the 1990s to find meaningful oyster restoration solutions.

Oysters, Jobs and Governor Hogan

Part of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed agreement was a commitment by Maryland and Virginia to invest heavily in oyster restoration projects. With prime oyster real estate cordoned off in sanctuaries as well as pricey oyster projects in place, watermen were crying foul, even as their ranks doubled. Enter Governor Hogan.

Chesapeake Bay watermen appealed to the Hogan administration and argued that oyster sanctuaries and restoration efforts were job-killers. The watermen convinced Hogan to press pause on a large-scale oyster reef project near St. Michaels, Maryland. The federally-funded Tred Avon oyster project was put on hold to apparently take a breather and to also wait for the five-year sanctuary post audit results.

Sanctuaries Work

Published last week, the Department of Natural Resources Oyster Management Review 2010-2015 provides data that keeping breeding oysters in the water, rather than on a plate, leads to oyster population increases. Oyster fishing on public oyster beds led to a decline in oyster populations. The DNR’s Oyster Advisory Commission recommended that the Tred Avon Oyster project continue. The Tred Avon oyster reef construction crew, the Army Corps of Engineers, has asked the Hogan administration to give a thumbs up or down decision by Friday, August 5. That also happens to be National Oyster Day.

Restoration is complicated

The oyster wars and Maryland’s future fishery management is complicated.  If you’re interested in diving deeper, there’s no better reporting resource than the Bay Journal.  Bay Journal’s Chesapeake Bay author Tom Horton and longtime Bay reporter Rona Kobell are now joined by Tim Wheeler. Wheeler was the Baltimore Sun’s environmental reporter for the past two decades. The good news is Marylanders can still access Wheeler’s reporting which offers readers the inside scoop on why bringing our Chesapeake Bay back-to-life will be complex.

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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the monthly environmental GreenLaurel column. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting. She co-wrote the Abell Foundation Report detailing Maryland's dysfunctional energy supplier marketplace and the negative outcomes for low-income households.
Laurel Peltier
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