DEAL ISLAND – J.R. Gross, a veteran waterman, will drive two hours from his home on Monday to his boat in St. Jerome Creek to begin harvesting oysters off the shores of Southern Maryland.
Gross, a resident of Shady Side, said he is forced to make the drive because new oyster sanctuary restrictions limit him from harvesting at his usual oyster bars along the Calvert and Anne Arundel shorelines. A fourth generation waterman, Gross said he expects his yield to be much lower this year because of new regulations that force him to locations that are more crowded with other fishermen.
“There’s a lot of bottom I can’t work now that I could’ve worked last year,” Gross said.
The new sanctuaries are part of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan, a program to preserve the dwindling oyster population, which has remained at 1 percent of historic levels since 1994.
However, restoration efforts will inevitably have an effect on this year’s harvest. The state Department of Natural Resources estimated that watermen’s harvest will decrease by about 10 percent, a drop that will have a tremendous effect on their income.
“It’s tough for me to make a living because if I lose three oyster bars I used to work on, I lose three weeks worth of work,” Gross said. “That difference means making it through the winter or not.”
To enforce the new regulations, the state’s Department of Natural Resources Police has begun patrolling sanctuaries more often and ticketing violators.
“Whenever you have a commercialization of any resource, there is a temptation to break the law to make more money,” said Sgt. Art Windemuth, the public information officer for the police department.
However, only a small percentage of watermen disobey the laws. Windemuth said the majority of watermen harvest legally.
“There’s one or two bad apples out there, and in any industry, you’re going to have a small percentage break the law and it makes it look like we’re all thieves, and we’re not,” Gross said.
There were 187 oyster violations issued in 2009. Numbers have not been compiled for 2010.
Windemuth hopes increased penalties and immediate license suspension measures will deter watermen from breaking the law.
To avoid costly penalties and to make money, the Department of Natural Resources hopes watermen will take advantage of aquaculture, a system of commercially producing aquatic life.
Tom O’Connell, director of fisheries at the Department of Natural Resources, said aquaculture could help to create 225 jobs in the next few years, benefit the local economy and help the oyster population.
“This industry won’t return to what it once was, but we want to make it better than it is today,” O’Connell said.
While there are only a few active aquaculture businesses in Maryland, 16 new applications for leases have been filed this season, O’Connell said.
In October, the state launched the Shellfish Aquaculture Loan Program, which gives $2.2 million in subsidized loans to provide watermen with affordable financing to launch or expand their aquaculture business.
However, many oystermen are not pleased with the new program.
Like many other watermen, Gross said he has no plans to start an aquaculture business because it is not as profitable as traditional harvesting.
“You can’t blame a man for trying to make some money,” said Gross, in regards to the new applicants. “But there’s nobody in the aquaculture business right now. The more people that get into it, the more cutthroat competition will be.”
Gross, who has tried growing oysters before, said aquaculture is not as profitable and that O’Malley and his administration should focus on ways to improve water quality first.
“If (aquaculture) was a lucrative business, we would be doing it, but because the water quality is so bad, we can’t grow them,” Gross said.
Bunky Chance, a fellow waterman who has been harvesting oysters for 30 years, said aquaculture would also put more of a financial burden on watermen who can’t afford to take that kind of risk.
“With aquaculture, the state can regulate and collect fees from us,” Chance said. “What they’re overlooking is the fact that no one is going to invest that amount of money towards aquaculture.”
An initial investment in aquaculture can cost a waterman up to $15,000 per acre, Chance said, while waterman who traditionally harvest can make up to $50,000 in the winter.
However, it is not all about business for many watermen. Gross agrees that oyster restoration is important, but says sanctuaries are not the best method.
“I don’t believe the sanctuaries do any good because we got some natural oyster bars that haven’t been harvested for 20 years, and they haven’t come back,” Gross said. “If we thought the sanctuaries would bring the bars back, we would want it to work, but they haven’t proven themselves yet.”
Chance believes power dredging, a mechanical method of scraping the bottom of the bay, will help the oyster population more than the sanctuaries because it helps to create a cleaner surface for oyster larvae to grow on.
“They need to start looking to the watermen (for solutions), but they’re not going to do that,” Gross said.
Gross also agrees with Chance about power dredging, but he emphasizes the importance of improving the bay’s water quality.
“Fix the water quality, and the bay will come back,” Gross said.
For more information about oyster sanctuaries, go to: http://www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/oysters/eco_resto/sanctuaries.asp