ANNAPOLIS — A bill in the Maryland General Assembly originally intended to restructure county oyster committees has been amended in a way to start the dialogue on sustainable oyster harvesting.
“There has been a lot of concern about oysters, shell, oyster seeding, dredging, the different ways of harvesting oyster and our oyster committees, and I applaud the effort of everybody wanting to get folks to the table and figure out how we truly manage and create a sustainable harvestry because I think that’s what it’s all about,” said Sen. Addie Eckardt, R-37-Mid-Shore, who is the bill’s sponsor.
In a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, March 24, Eckardt explained the origin of her bill.
She said it came after she was asked to cross-file a house bill of Del. Marvin Holmes, a Prince George’s County Democrat who engaged with Maryland’s commercial oyster industry and the county-based Clean Chesapeake Coalition to draft a bill that bestowed more power to county oyster committees and opened more bottom for harvest.
Holmes’ bill has since been withdrawn.
Eckardt called Holmes’ bill “ambitious” and, after discussion with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and watermen, she decided to put her own bill in the General Assembly that would just restructure the county oyster committees.
Eckardt said a corresponding bill in the House sponsored by Del. Jay Jacobs, R-36-Kent, was amended to essentially render it a study. Eckardt then included those amendments in her bill in the Senate, and presented it to the Senate committee on Tuesday.
“I believe it’s important that we continue the dialogue with our oyster committees with the Department of Natural Resources and perhaps others as we move forward,” Eckardt said Tuesday.
“But there does need to be a clearly delineated structure set in place, I believe, so that we can go ahead and determine what is the scope, what is the authority, what is the responsibility, what are the lines of communication as we go forward as we think about sustainable oyster harvest and what that will involve,” she said.
Bill Goldsborough, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s director of Fisheries, said Tuesday that the amendments would ask DNR to convene a work group between legislative sessions to look into the composition and the duties of the county oyster committees.
CBF didn’t support Eckardt’s bill before the study amendment, but Goldsborough said it would support it as amended.
Goldsborough said it sets up a dialogue between all stakeholders, rather than dictate a structure that would convey authority to one stakeholder group to manage a public resource, “including the ability to open the protective sanctuaries that make up 25 percent of productive bars now, anyway.”
David Sikorski, who was at the bill hearing Tuesday representing the Coastal Conservation Association, said oyster management in Maryland has long been based on what can be harvested, rather than looking at it from the ecological role of oysters in the Bay’s ecosystem.
“We value our success on the level of harvest, the economic benefit of that harvest, all too often and we forget about that ecological role, and an ecological role is important because this is a public resource,” Sikorski said. “It’s a public resource that’s not just valuable to those that harvest it for a profit, it’s important to the rest of the Bay’s citizens and the aquatic organisms which live within these reef structures and oysters.”
Charles “Chip” MacLeod, spokesman for the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, who also testified on the bill Tuesday, said that simply from a water quality improvement point of view, “oyster restoration could be a meaningful aspect of Maryland’s effort to really improve the Chesapeake Bay.”
MacLeod said that the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a tenfold increase in the oyster population in the Bay will remove 10 million pounds of nitrogen each year, and that Maryland’s statewide goals under the Bay Total Maximum Daily Load is 11.8 million pounds per year.
“Now, our (Watershed Implementation Plan) has a $14 billion price tag to pull out 11.8 million tons of nitrogen a year. Oysters, if we got a tenfold increase, would do 10 million (pounds of nitrogen) at no cost to the taxpayers, because the work is done by commercial watermen regulated by the Department of Natural Resources,” MacLeod said.
Eckardt’s Senate bill received an unfavorable vote from the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, meaning it will likely not move forward this session.
Jacobs’ bill passed unanimously in the House of Delegates. However, it was referred to the same committee that voted unfavorably on Eckardt’s bill.