ANNAPOLIS – At the urging of watermen, a Senate committee is considering legislation that would reintroduce power dredging in the Chesapeake Bay waters off Somerset County.
But the Department of Natural Resources, concerned about the dwindling oyster population, is opposed.
The bill, heard before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday, would establish a power dredging season, specify where power dredging could be done and set limits on the size of the dredge.
It also sets limits on the number of oysters watermen could harvest by power — a limit lower than the ceiling for other methods. Dwight Marshall, president of the Tangier Sound Watermen’s Association, said this shows critics that the intent is not to harvest more oysters, only to work more effectively.
But Peter Jensen, director of fisheries for the DNR, said power dredging would work against the agency’s efforts to protect the bay’s oysters.
The only oysters that reach the market size of three inches, Jensen said, are those that develop resistance to devastating parasites. Power dredging would remove the resistant oysters, preventing them from reproducing, he said.
Watermen counter that the same number of market-size oysters would be harvested by other methods.
Moreover, they said, power dredging actually helps oysters reproduce by taking empty shells buried at the bottom of the bay to water at the surface. There they are more accessible to floating oyster larvae, giving them a better chance of survival.
Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, the bill’s sponsor, said the measure would reinstate a method allowed from 1983 to 1993. The law expired under sunset provisions at a time when oystering was so unprofitable that no one protested.
Stoltzfus called power dredging a “more modern harvesting method, which is less damaging to the bottom,” than other methods.
Watermen argue that the waters specified by the bill were difficult to harvest by other methods, and are the only place in the state where power dredging is necessary. Under the bill, only those who already hold oyster harvesting licenses could get a power dredging license. But they would first have to surrender the oyster harvesting license to the DNR. The two licenses would be exchangeable at no cost. -30-