Aquaculture

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

ANNAPOLIS — The Department of Natural Resources has proposed a major relaxation of restrictions on oystering after a positive assessment of the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries was released in early June.

The oyster stock assessment update for 2021 showed healthy gains in spat, or juvenile oysters, as well as adult and market-size oysters. It also determined that only three regions of the Chesapeake Bay were fished over criteria limits last year, an improvement from 2018-2019 seasonal assessment when about 19 regions were flagged.

In response, DNR proposed handing Wednesdays back to the public fishery, increasing the number of days for oystering by one, for a total of five days a week. And most of the upper and northern parts of the Chesapeake Bay past the Bay Bridge, which have been closed off for two years, could also be opened.

Rob Newberry, the chairman of Delmarva Fisheries, which represents about 80% of the oystermen in Maryland, said the relaxation was “major” news “for all the watermen.”

But his industry also wants to see a bump in oyster bushel limits, which is currently capped at 24 bushels per day for one boat. DNR has not proposed increasing the cap.

“We knew that we weren’t going to hit a home-run,” Newberry said in an interview. He still called DNR’s proposals welcoming, because “historically, regardless of who the administration was, when the department would take something away from you — like take bottom, take days, whether it’s fishing, crabbing or hunting — very seldom have we gotten anything back.”

DNR is keeping public comment open until June 18 and will release its final regulatory decisions on July 1. Chris Judy, the director of shellfish for DNR, said in a statement that “the stock assessment shows that oyster populations are trending in the right direction.”

Judy explained the decision to restore Wednesdays was in response to the positive assessment and to changing market conditions during the pandemic, which have limited oystermen to fewer work days.

“As a result, the department is recommending that, for the most part, we stay the course,” he said. “But we should continue to work toward our goals ... under the proposal the majority of limits of the past two seasons wouald remain in place — season length, bushel limits, time of day harvest curfew.”

Watermen harvested 332,000 bushels last year, according to DNR data, an increase from 272,000 during last year’s season. Newberry called that another positive sign of the oyster population, especially because watermen worked fewer hours during the pandemic, which led to plummeting oyster sales.

“The guys were catching their limits opening day,” he said, “which means sustainability and a plethora of oysters to work with. Next year is going to be even better.”

The assessment shows that market-size oysters (above the minimum size limit of 3 inches) across the Bay area increased significantly to a rough average of 500 million. Planted spat has also soared to well past 2 billion. Both categories are reporting the third highest numbers since 1999.

Oyster populations reached record lows in 2003 following severe disease outbreaks in the ’70s and ’80s. The population is said to be at 1% of its historic peak in the late 1800s when 15 million bushels were harvested. Watermen, DNR and environmental organizations have been working to restore the population ever since with increased management, planting efforts and regulations.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden said in a statement that the latest data on oyster spat was “encouraging” but did not endorse an easing of regulations.

“These periodic high spatfall events provide managers with a tremendous opportunity to continue to grow Maryland’s oyster population if managed prudently,” she said. “However, certain areas of the Bay are experiencing chronic overfishing that threatens the persistence of oysters in those areas. One good year of spat set won’t resolve this problem, especially if the number of oyster harvesters continues to increase. DNR must adopt regulations that will address overfishing and protect this year’s spat so they can grow, reproduce, and build new reef habitat.”

Environmental organizations have joined watermen, lawmakers and other interested parties on the Oyster Advisory Committee, which began meeting last year in a renewed capacity.

The OAC is working on a long-term solution to restore the oyster population and maintain a sustainable public fishery.

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