After two years, an oyster policy consensus still elusive in Maryland
It’s hard to gather around oysters in Maryland. Two years ago, seeking to overcome seemingly endless disputes between conservationists and boatmen, Maryland lawmakers ordered fisheries managers to try a more consensual approach to managing the state’s oyster population.
In one bill passed over Governor Larry Hogan’s veto, the General Assembly directed the state Department of Natural Resources to work with scientists and assist the DNR oyster advisory board come up with ideas to replenish the oyster population while maintaining a sustainable harvest. Any recommendation should be supported by 75% of committee members.
After meeting more than two dozen times, the DNR panel posted on December 1 that he had agreed on 19 recommendations – only one of which called for doing something different in oyster management. He urged the state to invest $2 million a year for the next 25 years to restore oysters in Orient Bay, once a source of bountiful harvests but which has not been productive for the past two years. decades. Other recommendations mainly called for more shell or substrate to restore or replenish reefs, as well as more research, data collection and evaluation of existing management practices.
“I think everyone was hoping for a little more consensus,” said Sarah Elfreth, Anne Arundel County Senator, lead sponsor of the Oyster Management Act and member of the DNR advisory committee.
Hogan, in veto the bill, had argued that it would interfere with the oyster management plan that the DNR updated in 2019 and thwart progress in resolving disagreements. But lawmakers’ approach set out in the 2020 law followed the format of more limited negotiations that had forged an agreement between boatmen and conservationists over the management of oysters in the Choptank and Little Choptank rivers on the east coast.
This effort, called Oyster futuresproduced a series of recommendations, some calling for changes in harvesting rules and others proposing new restoration initiatives.
But the DNR commission’s oyster policy review has been handicapped, participants agreed, by having to hold most of its meetings virtually. Some members, especially boaters in rural areas of the east coast and southern Maryland, had difficulty logging in or participating.
Disappointed with the process
“I was really disappointed with the process,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission and advisory board member. “We never got to the point where we could really give and take – giving harvest progress in exchange for ecological gain.”
The lack of face-to-face meetings prevented commission members from getting to know each other and understanding other viewpoints.
“We never ate together. We never chatted together,” Swanson said. place.”
The commission had a lot to say. A team of scientists from DNR and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science analyzed the likely outcomes of more than 70 different options for adjusting oyster management and restoration policies and practices.
UMCES team member Michael Wilberg said computer modeling of various scenarios helped the Oyster Futures group overcome their differences. But the statewide review has been hampered, he said, by meeting handicaps and a set deadline for delivering recommendations to the governor and legislature.
“One of the big parts of this process is people coming up with new ideas and seeing us go out and try them and bring them back to the band,” he said. “It gets people talking to each other rather than trying to get around each other.
“I don’t think we’ve reached that level,” he added. “The group was just trying to get there, but we just ran out of time.”
Even so, Allison Colden, a fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said computer modeling had identified at least a few “win-win” scenarios that she believes could form the basis of a deal. But, she said, “we ended up with an outcome where we really didn’t come to consensus on anything in terms of advancing progress on oysters.”
A few of the policy scenarios run in the computer model predicted increased oyster abundance and harvests, with more shells available to replenish worn-out reefs, Wilberg said.
“The problem I think people had…was how expensive they were,” he said. To achieve this modeled outcome, the state would need to invest about $20 million a year, he said, or 10 times what it currently spends, to replenish the reefs with recycled oyster shells and oysters. hatchery-produced juveniles.
Boatmen express their frustration
“I’m not really happy, but we’re moving,” said Robert Brown, Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. He and others had argued that all the state needed to do was return to its long-standing practice of replenishing reefs with oyster shells and allowing boatmen to transfer juvenile “seed” oysters. from lower bay to upper bay. Computer analysis did not support this, however.
Despite the commission’s near stalemate, the boatmen said the oyster population appears to be rebounding on its own, after two summers of good natural reproduction.
Wilberg agreed there were signs that after decades of highs and especially lows, the oyster population could begin to experience a strong recovery. But oyster reproduction is patchy in the Maryland Bight portion, he noted, and the ability to replenish the stock is limited by the loss of many reefs that used to support the population.
“It’s possible that the future is really rosy,” he said. But the model indicates that if current management practices remain unchanged, he added, “it seems that we should expect a slow decline in the future, mainly due to the loss of [reef] habitat.”
At the end of the committee’s last meeting, DNR secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, who two years ago called the legislature’s action “misguided,” strained to present the result in a positive light.
“I think they did better than we expected,” she said, adding that the members went through “incredibly difficult circumstances.”
“We still have a lot of work to do,” she concluded, “but the fact that they were able to agree on some things is a good start.”