Bay foundation: DNR oyster limits 'halfhearted'

Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland Fisheries Sscientist Allison Colden is shown at right examining oyster shells earlier this year. The foundation has taken a critical stance on this year’s harvest limit reductions, with Colden calling them a “half-hearted attempt” that does not address the “systemic and chronic decline” in the Bay’s oyster population.

“These are halfhearted attempts that fail to address overfishing or the systemic and chronic decline of Maryland’s oyster population. We can’t keep putting off this problem.” Allison Colden

Maryland fisheries scientist

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

CHESTERTOWN — The Chesapeake Bay Foundation wants the state to take a different tack in regulating the wild oyster harvest to better preserve the population.

In advance of the oyster season’s Oct. 1 opening, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources issued this year’s harvest regulations with the expectation of a 26% reduction in the number of oysters caught.

The efforts include barring commercial oyster harvesting on Wednesdays. There also will be temporary closures of areas where oyster populations are low. Recreational harvesting will be allowed only on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with a 50% reduction in catch limits.

On Sept. 16, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation stated that it does not believe this year’s reductions will result in a harvest decrease, nor will they protect the oyster population. The foundation stated the DNR’s own analysis presented in April confirms reducing one harvest day a week “if implemented alone ... would have little conservation impact.”

“The other regulations — slightly reducing bushel limits and banning harvest above the Bay Bridge — are expected to reduce the overall harvest by 4% and 1%, respectively, according to DNR. These reductions offer little benefits for oyster conservation, especially considering market sized oysters above the Bay Bridge planted previously will remain available to harvest under the new regulations,” states a news release from the foundation.

Allison Colden, Maryland fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, issued a statement saying the DNR is obligated to use “the best available science to protect and conserve the state’s resources.”

“Their own analysis shows this proposal will have little, if any, impact to conserve oysters. These are halfhearted attempts that fail to address overfishing or the systemic and chronic decline of Maryland’s oyster population. We can’t keep putting off this problem,” Colden said in a statement.

According to the DNR, this year’s limits seek to put the oyster fishery on a path to rebound sustainability over the next decade.

“With an 8-10 year timeframe set as our goal, it is important that we begin implementation as soon as possible. If we combine sustainable fishing practices with other measures such as strategic investment, habitat restoration and sanctuaries, the result will be real, long-term solutions for the resource,” said Natural Resources Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio in a news release announcing this year’s limits.

As the DNR stated when releasing this season’s limits, the oyster population is affected by a number of issues, including disease, pollution and the demands of the seafood industry. Two years of heavy rains have changed salinity levels in parts of the Bay, impacting the oyster population.

DNR scientists reportedly used models, stock assessments and stakeholder input when preparing this year’s oyster regulations, with the information “scoped” in a public meeting with a number of fishery-related commissions.

Chuckie White, president of the Kent County Waterman’s Association, said last week that most of his fellow watermen are fine with this year’s limits. He said the price watermen are receiving for oysters helps offset the catch limits.

“Most watermen don’t have a problem with the limits,” White said. “They have a little bit of a problem with the day off because they think they get enough time off in the wintertime anyway with the weather.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation argues that the state’s oyster stock assessment last year showed overfishing in more than half the harvest areas of the Bay and that this year’s regulations do not address the issue. The foundation also stated the assessment showed about a 50% decline in the oyster population over two decades, dropping from about 600 million in 1999 to about 300 million in 2018.

“There’s an urgent need to stem this decline to benefit from the ecological value of oysters,” the Chesapeake Bay Foundation stated in a news release. “An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day and the bivalves naturally sequester nitrogen and phosphorus in their tissue. Oysters reefs also provide habitat to crabs, fish, and other marine life. Maryland’s oyster population remains critically low — it’s estimated to be at less than 2 percent of historic levels.”

The foundation wants the DNR to set total allowable catch limits, taking population estimates and setting harvest numbers for specific areas. When watermen hit a limit according to their catch reports for a harvest area, it would then be closed for the season.

In addition, the foundation is seeking a better “abundance target” from the DNR than the department’s general goal of a “sustainable oyster fishery.”

Robert Newberry, chairman of the Delmarva Fisheries Association Inc., submitted a guest commentary in which he stated that the DNR worked with stakeholders from the legislative to the scientific communities, the seafood industry to nonprofits to develop and implement a strategy to improve the oyster population.

He said that through the DNR”s approach, regulators will be able to determine which efforts are working and which are not and modify the course of action “until they’ve arrived at a suite of actions that increase the oyster population.”

“We proposed several ways to reduce harvest pressure, one of many stressors to the oyster population, as did others. Ultimately DNR came up with a plan for the coming season that left no one 100% satisfied. It’s called compromise,” Newberry wrote.

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