WASHINGTON – Richard Pelz, president of Circle C Oyster Ranch at St. Jerome Creek in Ridge, has a better idea for restoring the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population.
“(Maryland’s) restoration efforts are going awful because they keep trying to do it the wrong way,” Pelz said.
Oysters, decimated in the Chesapeake by pollution and disease, are best grown near the water’s surface, he said, so they clear up turbidity and allow light to penetrate.
“If you put oysters in the bottom, or worse yet, in rocks on the bottom, they’re removing oxygen, and therefore expanding the dead zone,” he said. Dead zones are areas of the bay without oxygen.
At Circle C Oyster Ranch, Pelz grows the Lineback, a breed of the native Eastern oyster he developed about 15 years ago. The company uses a system of floating oyster reefs that keep the shellfish just inches below the water’s surface rather than on the bay floor, where most of the state sanctuaries keep their oysters.
But his ideas have not caught on, and scientists and environmentalists stood by Maryland’s restoration methods during a Sept. 10 update before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Oceans and Wildlife.
“Oyster restoration is complex in a large ecosystem like the Chesapeake Bay,” Peyton Robertson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay office, said in his hearing testimony. “Increasing the size and number of sanctuaries is appropriate.”
The Eastern oyster has been declining in the bay since the mid-1980s because of past overharvesting, declining water quality and the appearance of MSX and Dermo, two parasitic diseases.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources operates 24 oyster sanctuaries in the bay, ranging in size from 5 acres to more than 5,000 acres. Yet the waterway’s number of Eastern oysters is 1 percent of what it was just 50 years ago, according to the department.
Pelz has another contrarian view: The size limit imposed on watermen is contributing to the oyster’s decline. Oysters smaller than three inches when harvested must be returned to the water.
“Oysters are funny critters — they change sex when they reach maturity,” Pelz said. At a growth rate of roughly an inch per year, the smaller oysters are all males, then after a year or so they become females, he said.
“So what . . . they’re putting back in the beds are male (and) diseased. If you do that to any population — take out the best every time — it’s going to go downhill.”
Though Pelz said he is having no trouble making a living harvesting the Lineback oyster, which grows faster than some others, other Maryland watermen say they are struggling.
Mike Hamilton, once a successful bay waterman with his own seafood wholesale business, several years ago abandoned fishing and oyster-harvesting in favor of general contract work.
“There was not enough money in it,” said Hamilton, owner of M. Hamilton & Sons. “I still buy seafood every now and then, I still sell it but . . . I very seldom go out and get it myself. I got kids in college. I need a certain amount of money.”
Pelz said he has long believed the state’s methods of oyster-restoration were doomed to failure but has not held out hope that the Lineback would become widely grown.
“It’s embarrassing (for the state),” he said. “I’m not a scientist. I’m just a farmer.”