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Capital Gazette |
Jan 03, 2020 | 9:42 AM
Environmentalist Gerald Winegrad plants oyster seed at his dock on Oyster Creek in Annapolis with students.
Chesapeake oysters have collapsed to less than 1 percent of their historic populations. Harvests have plummeted to 136,954 bushels in Maryland. In the late 1800s, 20 million bushels were taken in the bay. In 1900, processing oysters was the third-largest employer in Baltimore City. Oyster’s dockside value far exceeded any other bay fishery until the last 50 years.
I can remember when City Dock in Annapolis was crowded with oyster boats loading their catch onto a buy boat or by conveyor belt onto trucks backed up next to the Fleet Reserve.og A rigorous stock assessment dictated by the General Assembly in lieu of actions to curtail overharvest was completed in 2018. It documented a striking 50 percent decline in Maryland’s oyster population from 1999 to 2017. This was despite the expenditure of more than $50 million in public funds to restore populations — a failed effort.
Exacerbating this problem are the last two years of extremely low spat-set meaning a substantial further decline in oyster numbers as well as major reductions in oyster plantings on sanctuaries.
While the economic impact on watermen and processors has been huge, the Chesapeake’s health has suffered, too. Oysters are the bay’s top keystone species with large adults able to filter and cleanse 50 gallons of water a day. This removes excess nutrients and settles sediments, the two major bay pollutants. Oysters used to filter all bay water in 3-5 days; now it takes at least 1.5 years.
If there was one measurement of the success or failure of Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts, it would be the oyster. The bitter, sad truth is we have allowed oyster populations to collapse. The bay states recognized the importance of this keystone species when they committed in 2000 to increase oyster biomass by 10-fold by 2010. This goal was abandoned as stocks declined.
Why has the collapse occurred?
First, overharvest has been occurring for many decades. The 2018 stock assessment found that 50% of oyster bars are overharvested. There is also rampant poaching from sanctuaries. Maryland has failed to act to stop these problems. Virginia has shifted to more significant aquaculture operations (248,347 bushels last season).
Second, is the failure to reduce sediment pollution primarily from farm operations but also from polluted stormwater from developed areas. Scientists document that more than 70% of Maryland oyster bars have been smothered with excess sediment.
In an August 2011 study published by five Maryland scientists, they noted a massive decline of 92% in Maryland oyster biomass since 1980. A moratorium on all wild harvesting was proposed. The researchers attributed the decline primarily to overfishing and concluded that if harvest had stopped in 1986, adult abundance would be 15.8 times greater than in 2011. Instead, watermen continued to harvest 25% of the remaining oysters each year.
This collapse in bay oysters follows a global pattern necessitating a shift to aquaculture operations. More than 95 percent of global oyster harvest is from aquaculture.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation called for a moratorium in 1990 and in 2010, CBF recommended a transition from wild harvest to aquaculture. On Feb. 18, 2019, the Baltimore Sun editorialized: Chesapeake Bay Oysters: Time to Talk Moratorium.
The recent weak harvest restrictions Maryland DNR proposed will do almost nothing to restore oyster populations. What we don’t need is another study or fishery management plan the legislature is considering by overriding the Governor’s veto of SB 830. We need action — and now. I propose legislation to:
- Phase-out wild oyster harvest over a five-year period beginning with a faster phase out of damaging power dredging—the entire Chesapeake should be an oyster sanctuary—while compensating harvesters to shift to aquaculture operations;
- Adopt a compensation fund to pay watermen an amount based on an average of their last three years of oyster landings with the funds to be used to assist them in converting to oyster aquaculture including an aquaculture insurance program to augment USDA aquaculture disaster insurance allowing watermen to insure their aquaculture oyster crops; and
- Ban any sanctuary harvest or change in boundaries of sanctuaries except to enlarge them.
To Save The Bay, we must save the oyster.
Gerald Winegrad served in the Maryland legislature for 16 years and led efforts to restore the Bay. He chaired the Senate Environment and Chesapeake Bay Subcommittee and has taught graduate courses in Bay Restoration since 1988. The Washington Post called him “The environmental conscience of the Senate.” He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org;