BALTIMORE — A comprehensive new report from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) indicates that the severely depleted oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay may be rebounding slightly.
Yet, that slight improvement coupled with how bleak the situation has become for the oyster population likely curbed any sense of unbridled optimism in the short term.
“The degradation of the oyster resource happened over 150 years,” said the 900-page report, “hence it is unrealistic to expect a reversal within the decade.”
Due to disease and over fishing, oyster populations had been reduced to just one percent of historic levels.
Thusly, in 2010, the DNR altered its regulations for the management of the oyster resource in the Maryland portion of Chesapeake Bay with the intent of advancing oyster restoration. The regulations expanded the scale of oyster sanctuaries, created new opportunities for oyster aquaculture, and designated areas to be maintained for the public fishery with the intent of advancing oyster restoration.
Since then, more than 253,000 acres of bay bottom has been off limits to oyster harvesting in hopes that a sort of natural revival would happen amongst the oyster population in the state’s 51 protected oyster sanctuaries.
Yet, oysters have become a very politically divisive and heavily debatable topic in Maryland, with Gov. Larry Hogan campaigning in 2014 to end what he called the “war on watermen,” while waterman have been fighting vehemently in the past six years to get some of these sanctuaries re-opened for harvesting.
The DNR report is expected to play a big role in shaping how that debate looks in the coming years in the state as it’s the first essential benchmark in the every five year assessment laid out in the DNR’s oyster restoration plan.
The state’s Oyster Advisory Commission, which is a 23-person panel made up of elected officials, scientists, and watermen will review the massive report and then recommend to DNR which, if any, of the protected sanctuaries could be reopened to oystermen for controlled harvesting.
State Senator Jim Mathias (D-District 38) is a member of the panel and says the past several meetings have been very productive.
“Everyone is listening to one another and there has been a very positive and pragmatic approach,” he said. “I think it’s great that the governor has put watermen on the panel, and I feel confident that we are headed in the right direction.”
Whether or not commercial shellfish harvesting will commence in protected areas will be determined by statistical data surrounding population growth and density.
The report does say that oyster biomass in protected areas increased in many sanctuaries in the past two years, and while the biomass of the population decreased in unprotected areas.
Additionally, the federal government has mandated that both Virginia and Maryland each restore oyster populations to historic levels in five tributaries in the Chesapeake Bay including, in Maryland, the Tred Avon River, the Choptank River and Harris Creek.
Some environmentalists have already criticized the report saying that the recommendation to consider reopening some of these protected sanctuaries is an attempt to boost the seafood industry without allowing more time for the population to rebound. Watermen, on the other hand, who have long been critical of the state’s restoration plan and procedure, say when the state upped the protected areas for oyster restoration from 9% of the bay to 24% of the bay in 2010, some of the sanctuaries that have been off limits to them were the so-called prime spots for oyster harvesting.
Still, the study shows that the oysters in protected areas are bigger and are starting to show a greater ability to reproduce. According to scientists, oysters are vital for the health of the Chesapeake Bay, as the population consumes algae and filters many pollutants from the waters.
But, despite the fact that the 900-page report shows signs of improvement, the general consensus is that while the DNR has been monitoring these sanctuaries closely for the past five years, they need more time.
“Although five years is not enough time to fully understand the biological consequences of sanctuary management, there is justification to consider adjustments,” the report said.