HB924 puts oyster sanctuaries out of bounds

CAMBRIDGE — These days, Dorchester County watermen do a lot of driving to harvest oysters — boats on trailers behind pickup trucks rather than in the water.

Some of the most productive oyster bars that were sites of bountiful harvests in the past, prime bottom, are now sanctuaries. Sanctuaries were established in 2010 in the Little Choptank River, Hooper Strait, the Nanticoke River, Harris Creek and the Tred Avon. Now, watermen drive to Crisfield and Deal Island, bypassing their home waters to find oysters. Watermen could soon lose even more access to local waters.

Following a recent review from the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission, DNR Secretary Mark Belton will report to Gov. Larry Hogan in order to establish two new, federally mandated sanctuaries in Maryland. Hooper Strait and the Nanticoke River are among the suggested sites. The Hogan administration will likely decide on the new sanctuaries in roughly six months.

Partly because of Maryland House Bill 924, which passed during the recent legislative session, DNR, and Dorchester and Talbot County watermen, will not be able to harvest oysters from protected waters in their home counties for at least two years.

The synopsis of the bill states the intention of the legislation is to prohibit “… the Department of Natural Resources from reducing or altering the boundaries of specified oyster sanctuaries until the Department develops a fisheries management plan for the scientific management of the oyster stock following completion of a specified study and reports.”

DNR is working now to complete this assessment, and the results aren’t due until December 2018. Until then, the boundaries of these sanctuaries will remain unchanged. The bill was introduced by Delegate Jim Gilchrist of Montgomery County. According to the most recent DNR data available, no one in Montgomery County held a commercial oyster license for the 2016 season. In 2016, Talbot County led the state in commercial oyster licenses with 145, and Dorchester had the second most with 133.

Secretary Belton released a statement March 28, the day HB924 was passed by the Maryland Legislature.

“We are disappointed that the Maryland General Assembly voted to upend the legislatively-mandated work of the Oyster Advisory Commission (ongoing since July 2016) to appease special interest groups,” Mr. Belton stated. “Their vote demonstrates a disdain of the commission’s progress and for science itself (as seen in the five-year report). … Today’s vote was based on fear, not the facts.”
The fact is, DNR completed a five-year oyster management review in 2015. In July 2016, the department released a more than 900-page report with details from the review.

In 2010, “The Department has committed to reviewing the effectiveness of the locations of sanctuaries, public shellfish fishery areas, and aquaculture areas every 5 years and to propose changes where needed,” according to information available on the website, dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries.

On March 23, days before HB924 passed, DNR released an explanation of its opposition to the bill.

“The 5 Year Report contains an abundance of data on the sanctuary areas; such as oyster reproduction, growth, disease, mortality, and habitat,” the document states. “The report is currently being used by DNR and the Oyster Advisory Commission (DNR’s oyster partners) to discuss and select the next two tributaries. The OAC requested and received proposals for sanctuary boundary changes from both the oyster industry and environmental groups between November 2016 and January 2017.”

HB924 shut down the potential for DNR “to propose changes where needed,” to the boundaries of any of the current sanctuaries, including protected waters in Talbot and Dorchester counties, until after the assessment which is due in December 2018. This is despite stated opposition from groups representing the Eastern Shore, and its working watermen. Also, members of the Shore Delegation proposed a number of amendments that were rejected.

Attorney Charles “Chip” MacLeod is legal counsel for both the seven-county Clean Chesapeake Coalition and the Delmarva Fisheries Association. As a representative of both organizations, Mr. MacLeod provided the Banner with a letter to Delegate Gilchrist, and also written testimony to legislative committees stating opposition to the bill.

A Feb. 21 letter to Delegate Gilchrist signed by CCC Chairman Ron Fithian states, “The overall objective of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition is to raise awareness and pursue improvement to the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay in the most prudent and fiscally responsible manner — through research, coordination and advocacy. We believe that a prudently managed oyster fishery can be one of the most cost effective best management practices to improve water quality, while boosting the seafood industry and local economies.

“Simply put, now is not the time to further tie the hands of the Department of Natural Resources, while in the process of developing a long-overdue oyster management plan.”

Similar positions are stated in the testimonies submitted to the legislature.

Watermen and members of the Shore Delegation are concerned that the hands-off approach to oyster sanctuaries will lead to disease, oysters being buried in silt, and mortality.

Senator Addie Eckardt and Delegate Johnny Mautz proposed similar amendments to HB924. The amendments would have allowed DNR to shift the boundaries of oyster sanctuaries in order to address areas where oysters are distressed, without any net loss to the size of the sanctuary. According to the amendment, if a boundary was reduced in one area, the sanctuary would have expanded in another area to compensate for the loss. However, the amendments were rejected.

Speaking in mid-May, Delegate Chris Adams said he also proposed an amendment, “to primarily support an industry that is under assault.”

“I don’t want to make any bones about this,” Delegate Adams said. “We have to preserve our watermen’s livelihood. We have to support our DNR and the science they’re providing.”

Delegate Adams’ amendment sought to expand DNR’s shell and seed program which is supported by the Clean Chesapeake Coalition and the Delmarva Fisheries Association.

The program uses shell seeded with oyster spat to replenish oyster stock in the Bay. Delegate Adams’ amendment proposed “… requiring the Department (of Natural Resources) to provide a minimum number of bushels of oyster shell for public oyster bottom each year …”

Currently, DNR provides 200,000 bushels. Adams’ amendment would have increased that number to 250,000, but the amendment failed. Many watermen, and those who support them, believe the shell and seed program is successful, and question the need for sanctuaries.

“Johnny, Addie and I represent Dorchester and Talbot counties. Of course, I represent Wicomico, and I’m close to Somerset,” Delegate Adams said. “These are counties that need to be defended. … The legislature is antagonistic to watermen. They’re antagonistic toward the bushel model.”

Senator Eckardt, delegates Mautz and Adams agree that watermen know they must sustain oysters to sustain their livelihoods — livelihoods that are very much at stake.

“We know what we need to do to protect and grow the oyster bottom, just let us do it,” Delegate Adams said. “We’re not just going to lose the businesses, we’re going to lose the heritage. … This is a part of who we are.”

While HB924 makes certain that oyster sanctuaries won’t be harvested for at least two years, the future of watermen on the Mid-Shore is uncertain. As DNR Secretary Belton and Gov. Hogan discuss the future of two new sanctuaries, one more thing is certain: the Dorchester County Council does not want those sanctuaries in Dorchester waters.

A Jan. 20 letter from the county council, addressed to Gov. Hogan and signed by Council President Ricky Travers states, “The Little Choptank in its entirety as well as a large section of the Nanticoke River is already in oyster sanctuary. Consequently prime bottom has been removed from seafood production. It is the County Council’s understanding that the (Oyster Advisory) Commission is discussing the possible designation of additional areas in the Nanticoke River as sanctuaries. This will adversely impact the seafood industry in Dorchester County and place an undue harship on local watermen. … We seek your assistance to cease efforts to designate additional bottom in Dorchester County as sanctuary.”

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a three-part series about oyster sanctuaries and their effects on Dorchester County. The final story will appear in an upcoming edition of the Banner.

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