ANNAPOLIS – Maryland watermen used to freely plying the Chesapeake Bay in search of oysters may be forced to accept new restrictions, according to an interim report released Wednesday by the state’s Oyster Advisory Commission.
The report outlines potential fixes for the bay’s chronically low oyster population, including an expansion of oyster sanctuaries and the introduction of bay bottom leases that would restrict where harvesting could take place. Forcing licensed watermen to switch from freely harvesting public areas to leasing acres of bay bottom for aquaculture would drastically change the nature of Maryland’s historic oyster market, a possibility that has riled many Maryland watermen.
“We’ve had some slow years, decline years, and [watermen] have no money to invest in leases or to buy seed,” said Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert County Watermen’s Association. “The state is trying to get out of the oyster business and lease all the areas to corporations and oystermen – but probably just corporations, because we feel they’re the only ones who could afford it.”
Restructuring the industry this way would result in independent watermen giving up free enterprise to work for large corporations and hourly pay, or getting out of the industry all together, said Zinn. Zinn and others feel that their concerns are not being addressed by a commission that includes just one waterman.
But Commission Chair William Eichbaum said the group, established by the state in April, has been sensitive to the concerns of watermen and is searching for new ideas to revitalize the oyster population. The average reported oyster harvest has dropped recently to 104,000 bushels a year, compared to 2.5 million bushels a year from the 1920s to the 1960s.
“This might be the last chance to put together a plan, because the next time we try, or if we fail, there might not be any oysters,” Eichbaum said.
While watermen agree that the oyster situation is dire, opinions differ on the best solution. “Their theory of stopping all commercial harvests is not the answer to get the oysters back,” Zinn said. “Oysters need to be cultivated. Just letting them sit doesn’t mean they’re going to come back strong.”
Though the ecological and economical positions seem inherently contradictory, commission members remain optimistic about striking a happy medium.
“There’s more to come,” said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and a commission member. “We have to think of creative ways to help traditional watermen transition to the aquaculture industry.”
Recommendations contained in the interim report are not official, Boesch said. Before releasing its final report, the commission will consider the findings of an environmental impact statement due in May that is looking at the possibility of introducing non-native oysters into the bay.
Any official recommendations for change to the industry will have to be gradual, Boesch said. “It can’t happen overnight.”
The importance of oyster population restoration has drawn the attention of state legislators and members of Congress. On Monday, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., presented a Western Maryland research facility with $470,000 in federal funding to establish the state’s second oyster hatchery.
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