O'Malley sets new course for aquaculture
Watermen say plan to expand oyster sanctuaries is no pearl
ANNAPOLIS Maryland would more than double its network of oyster sanctuaries that are off-limits to fishing and expand areas open to aquaculture leases under a plan announced Thursday by Gov. Martin O'Malley.
The announcement was cheered by environmentalists and scientists as groundbreaking and criticized by the president of the state watermen's association as a threat to the men who make a living on Maryland's waters.
The three-part plan to restore the state's oyster population would expand oyster sanctuaries from 9 percent to 24 percent of the remaining quality habitat in the Bay and its tributaries and would step up enforcement against poaching using radar and cameras.
It also would open 95,524 acres of natural oyster bars to leasing for aquaculture investors to plant and harvest oysters, while expediting the permitting process. The state would maintain 167,720 acres as natural oyster bars off-limits to leasing and open to wild oyster fishing.
O'Malley (D) said the plan would protect the oyster population and the economy.
The plan "will absolutely play into our ability to create new and sustainable, long-lasting jobs when we restore this resource," he said.
Consider Virginia, O'Malley told attendees at Thursday's announcement made on the dock of the Annapolis Maritime Museum, a former oyster packing plant near Annapolis' city dock.
"If you look across the river at Virginia, where aquaculture is already producing over tens of millions of dollars of dockside value that potential exists in Maryland, as well. We just have to harness it," he said.
Within five years, the restoration efforts could create up to 225 jobs and provide a $25 million boon to the state's economy each year, said Doug Lipton, an associate professor and resource economist at the University of Maryland, College Park, who attended the announcement event.
"You're buying supplies from other Maryland industries," he said. "You're selling product to Maryland processors. It's getting into the Maryland restaurants."
Kim Coble, state director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, thanked O'Malley for his leadership in the effort, saying it was a "monumental day."
"We've heard other plans, but this one is truly a new paradigm to oyster management," Coble said. "The state is finally and truly recognizing the ecological value of oysters."
The plan also recognizes the importance of aquaculture to sustaining the oyster industry, she said, adding that it "not only protects the oysters, but protects our watermen economy."
But Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns said the O'Malley administration did not consult with watermen in developing the plan.
"The rivers they want to take for sanctuaries, it'll put [watermen] out of business if they take all those," Simns said.
The plan creates sanctuaries in prime locations for watermen to find oysters, he said. That includes almost the entire Chester River, about two-thirds of the Choptank River and nearly half of the Patuxent River.
Much of the lower Patuxent River, as well as the lower St. Mary's River, St. George's Creek and much of the Wicomico River, are proposed public shellfish fishery areas, meaning they would be open to wild oyster harvests.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated about 36,000 acres of productive bottom exists in the Maryland portion of the Bay.
Simns said he was first briefed on the plan on Wednesday by Department of Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin.
"They should've been talking with us all along" instead of hatching the plan "in secrecy," Simns said.
Griffin promised to work with watermen on details of the proposal.
"We'll try to work with them any way that we can," Simns said. "But they can't take the only bottom we've got to work with to make sanctuaries."
Open houses on the plan will be held around the state in coming weeks, followed by a public hearing and comment period in April. The regulations are scheduled to be adopted in May.
The plan is built on the findings of a six-year Environmental Impact Study of oyster restoration options and the work of the Oyster Advisory Commission and the Aquaculture Coordinating Council.
Maryland's oyster harvest has dwindled from 2 million bushels a year in the early 1980s to just 100,000 bushels in 2008-2009, said Tom O'Connell, director of the fisheries service for the Department of Natural Resources. The current catch has a dockside value of about $3 million.
The number of oyster harvests has decreased from more than 2,000 license holders before an outbreak of disease in the mid-1980s decimated the Bay's oyster population to about 530 today, O'Connell said.
Some younger watermen are interested in investing in aquaculture, said Ben Parks, president of the Dorchester Seafood Harvesters' Association and the chairman of the state's Aquaculture Coordinating Council.
"It's going to be a different lifestyle," he said.
Maryland has set aside about $13 million in federal and state dollars to promote aquaculture, Griffin said. About $9 million is to restore oyster bars in sanctuaries. Another $2.5 million is for training watermen in aquaculture and for equipment grants.
"That's only peanuts," Parks said.
Staff Writer Jesse Yeatman
contributed to this report.
For more, go to www.dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries.