ANNAPOLIS – A bill filed late in the House of Delegates would require the Department of Natural Resources to establish oyster sanctuaries in half of the viable habitat and create a more specific fishery management plan for oysters — and place a moratorium on oyster harvesting until those goals are met.
Delegate Tom Hucker, D-Montgomery, Tuesday testified on behalf of his bill to the Environmental Matters Committee. He said the bill is “meant to begin a discussion.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley has proposed an Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development plan that would expand oyster sanctuaries from about 9 percent of the viable habitat to about 25 percent.
Watermen have said that goes too far and harms their ability to make a living. Dozens have traveled to the capital this legislative session in support of a number of oyster-related bills, including one that would take away the ability of the Department of Natural Resources to designate oyster sanctuaries and others that would protect their right to use certain types of oyster harvesting equipment.
But Hucker said the governor’s oyster plan does not go far enough. His bill would require oyster sanctuaries covering at least 50 percent of the viable public habitat.
“The status quo … won’t save the oyster industry and won’t save the oysters,” Hucker told the committee.
The state must take aggressive action before oysters are gone, Hucker said.
Oysters are important to the health of the Chesapeake Bay because they filter pollutants, he said. But he said the current oyster management system benefits only watermen.
“The bay and the oysters belong to 5 million (Marylanders), not just 200,” Hucker said.
The Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland worked with Hucker on the bill, and governmental relations committee chairman Scott McGuire helped the delegate answer questions about it Tuesday.
McGuire said members of his organization “thought the other side of the story needed to be told.”
“We don’t want to fence off the bay,” he said, but oysters are “so important, they need special protection.”
Delegate Richard Sossi, R-Queen Anne’s, said the bill “doesn’t help the industry (and) doesn’t help the environment.”
The oyster population has been low for years, Sossi said, but it isn’t getting worse. So while he wants to see the population rebound soon, he said the state needs to give aquaculture more time to work before changing the rules.
Hucker’s bill “blatantly throws 500 people out of work … during one of the worst recessions in history,” Sossi said.
Hucker said he did not think the bill would kill the oyster industry. He said the moratorium provision is to prompt quick action on a fishery management plan, not to stop oyster harvesting all together.
But he said the oyster industry is not an economic engine for the state and that state resources and taxpayer-supported research should not benefit watermen at the expense of others.
“My constituents have been very heavily subsidizing the oystermen for (decades),” he said.