ANNAPOLIS – An emergency regulation to open five areas around Chesapeake Bay to power dredging for oysters is awaiting approval by the Joint Legislative Review Committee, a Department of Natural Resources official said Tuesday.
The proposal to loosen restrictions – the areas had been open to other types of oystering, but not dredging – comes in response to predictions by Department of Natural Resources’ scientists that this year’s harvest could be the worst ever.
Oyster stocks and harvests plummeted as parasites spread through the bay starting in the mid-1980’s. The 1994 harvest was the worst on record, at just under 80,000 bushels.
“Dismal,” “disaster,” and “pathetic” all describe this year’s harvest, said Chris Judy, director of DNR’s shellfish program.
Salinity levels in the bay climbed due to two summers of drought, causing the parasites to thrive, which just made things worse for the oysters, he said.
As of early January, about 28,000 bushels had been harvested this season, Judy said, and by the end of the season, on March 31, watermen will likely have harvested fewer than 50,000 bushels, maybe even fewer than 40,000.
The proposed regulation targets parts of Fishing Bay, Pocomoke Sound and the Choptank, St. Mary’s and Honga rivers for power dredging.
The emergency regulation wouldn’t affect existing restrictions on when or how often watermen could use power dredging, said Gina Hunt, DNR fisheries regulation coordinator.
The department plans to monitor areas it is opening to ensure beds aren’t overfished, Hunt said.
“We don’t know how many people are going to take advantage of this, how many oysters they are going to bring in,” she said. “If they are going like gangbusters, we could shut them down.”
As strange as it sounds, the agency hopes the emergency regulation will improve oyster stocks, said Hunt, although watermen will likely benefit from the changes as well.
Power dredging is an oyster fishing technique where a skipjack boat pulls a net along the bottom of the bay while being pushed by a smaller motorboat called a yawl. In addition to being a more efficient means of harvesting oysters than traditional tongs, dredging also leaves behind clean oyster shells, which are beneficial to the oysters’ reproduction.
Young oysters float in the water for two to three weeks before they become too heavy and sink to the bottom.
These young oysters, called spat, need a hard surface, preferably other oyster shells, to attach themselves to when they land on the bottom. Spat landing on mud or silt sink and die.
Striking a balance between conservation and harvesting is critical, said Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“(Power dredging is) going to pick up more oysters,” he said. “(But) if you do it right, that kind of activity can expose oyster shells on oyster bars that might be silted over. It’s a two-way thing.”
Combining increased power dredging with more oyster sanctuaries, where harvesting is forbidden, and preserves, where harvesting is allowed every few years, could increase the spawning potential in the bay, Goldsborough said.
An emergency regulation must be approved by the Joint Legislative Review Committee of the Maryland General Assembly before it can take effect, Hunt said, and that could happen as early as Jan. 27. If the new rule is challenged, and has to go to a hearing, it could be several more weeks before it could be executed.
Power dredging alone, however, won’t solve the oyster problem in the bay, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.
“It’s not going to defeat the disease,” he said. “It’s a stepping stone.”