Panel To Study Expanding Aquaculture In Coastal Bays

OCEAN CITY – Establishing a viable, productive aquaculture industry in the coastal bays while minimizing the potential impact on those who use and enjoy the waters are among the objectives of Maryland’s new 10-member Coastal Bays Aquaculture Development Workgroup formed recently to study the budding industry in the waters in and around the resort area.

Aquaculture, in this case the growing and harvesting of shellfish such as oysters and clams in controlled environments, is big business in neighboring states, but the industry is relatively untapped in the coastal areas of Maryland. With traditional harvests of shellfish at historic lows and increasing natural and man-made threats to oysters and clams in the wild, exploring the possibility of expanding an aquaculture presence in the coastal bays appears to be a logical progression.

To that end, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently formed a 10-member task force of sorts to study the possibility of an expanded aquaculture industry in the coastal bays. The panel includes a cross-section of local and state politicians, environmental group leaders, scientists and researchers, and other stakeholders including watermen, hunters and property rights advocates.

The group’s objectives include identifying the major obstacles to aquaculture operations in the coastal bays, identifying opportunities to support aquaculture and developing strategies to minimize user-conflicts. It’s a complicated issue to be sure, but the potential economic and ecological benefits cannot be ignored, according to DNR Secretary John R. Griffin.

“Across the state, we have seen a renewed interest in shellfish aquaculture,” he said this week. “We now have a timely opportunity to develop new local businesses that can utilize renewable natural resources to create sustainable economic benefits. Aquaculture has the potential to provide ecological advantages to the bays, while also seeking to minimize other user conflicts.”

There is currently a handful of private aquaculture enterprises operating in the coastal bays, most notably a clam nurturing and harvesting operation near Public Landing, but the DNR’s panel is hoping to expand the presence to a much larger scale. Tentative plans call for the state leasing areas of bay bottom to private interests who would then develop working aquaculture operations in the coastal bays.

From an economic standpoint, a thriving aquaculture industry in the coastal bays would create jobs, generate revenue, fill a void in existing markets for clams and oysters, and provide new opportunities for watermen faced with growing challenges.

From an environmental standpoint, clams and oysters are nature’s greatest natural filters of nutrients and other contaminants in the coastal bays and there is an obvious water quality benefit to be gained from an expanded aquaculture presence in the bays. No less important is the historic benefit. Harvesting clams and oysters is part of the heritage of Worcester County, and establishing a viable aquaculture presence in the coastal bays is a way of sustaining that, according to Delegate Jim Mathias, who is serving on the 10-member panel.

“I’m very committed to the concept of developing a working, sustainable aquaculture presence in the coastal bays,” he said. “Going into this, we believe there something can be done to nurture an untapped industry. This is part economic development and part preservation of a part of our heritage.”

Mathias sponsored a bill approved last year to prohibit hydraulic dredging for clams in the coastal bays. He said this week exploring an expanded aquaculture presence here could help fill that void.

“I have somewhat of a personal stake in this in that I helped lead the effort to prohibit hydraulic dredging for clams in the coastal bays,” he said. “This presents an alternative, but it has to be explored carefully. We have to be responsible and respectful off all the parties involved in this.”

While there are numerous upsides to the issue, some are concerned an expanded aquaculture presence in the coastal bays could infringe on property owner’s rights and could limit access to areas traditionally utilized by recreational fishermen, hunters and others who utilize the waters. Striking a balance is one of the major challenges facing the workgroup, according to Worcester County Commission President Virgil Shockley, who is also on the panel.

“One of my initial concerns is the potential impact on property rights,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned already is that a property owner’s rights end at the water’s edge, but we have to respectful and mindful of their rights. There are a lot of questions and this is not going to be an easy thing. It’s going to require a law change in Annapolis.”

At the end of the exploratory process, the panel will make recommendations to the DNR on how best to develop a commercial aquaculture presence in the coastal bays, according to Shockley.

“We have to take steps to save the industry because it’s an important part of the heritage of Worcester County,” he said. “This involves economic development, resource preservation, property rights, and it’s linked to tourism. It’s complicated, but there is a logical and practical reason to explore this now.”