Aquaculture

The Department of Natural Resources could lift restrictions on oystermen following a healthy stock assessment update this year.

CHESTER —  The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is asking the state to take stronger action to end oyster overfishing and develop population rebuidling plans for areas of the Bay where the oyster population has declined to the lowest levels on record.

In comments filed with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources recently, CBF urged DNR to maintain four oyster harvest days per week and to implement electronic harvest reporting in the fishery. Virginia has switched to mandatory electronic reporting for the 2021-2022 oyster season.

CBF is also opposed to opening harvest areas north of the Bay Bridge where oyster populations have consistently struggled due to increasing rain causing lower salinity conditions.

The foundation is continuing to urge DNR to re-think how it manages the state’s oyster fishery by implementing a total allowable catch system. Oyster fishery managers could use the population estimates from the state’s oyster stock assessment for specific areas of the Bay to determine how many oysters could be harvested sustainably from each location. Once the total allowable catch number for an area is reached, oyster harvesting would no longer be allowed until the next season begins. This system can help prevent over-harvesting and ideally end the boom-and-bust cycles that have been repeated throughout history in the state’s oyster fishery, according to CBF. Total allowable catch systems are used widely throughout the world as well as in many of Maryland’s commercial fisheries.

Currently, DNR’s oyster management tools primarily include altering bushel limits, workdays, or season length. Earlier in June, DNR proposed increasing oyster harvesting to five days a week, after the department eliminated harvest on Wednesdays in 2019 in response to declines in the oyster population. At that time, DNR also closed oyster harvesting in areas north of the Bay Bridge.

DNR made the changes to reduce harvesting effort by watermen. However, Maryland’s oyster harvest doubled — from approximately 145,000 bushels landed in the 2018-2019 season to 333,000 bushels in 2020-2021. Oyster harvesting licenses also increased from 822 in 2018 to more than 1,200 in 2020 — meaning more watermen are harvesting or plan to harvest oysters.

Even though the 2021 stock assessment indicated an increase this year, today’s Maryland oyster population remains historically low. It’s just a small fraction of what it was in the early 1900s, and harvest figures fall far short of those in the 1980s when a million to a million and a half bushels of oysters were harvested each year.

“This year’s stock assessment results are encouraging but by no means a justification to throw caution to the wind. The oyster population is still experiencing chronic overfishing in some of the Bay’s last remaining productive oyster harvesting areas," said Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden.

The foundation wants to restrict fishing in areas of low abundance unless there are set quotas and required daily harvesting reports.

“We continue to ask DNR to implement a total allowable catch system in Maryland’s public oyster fishery to address issues identified by the stock assessment," she said.

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