Md. plans expanded oyster sanctuary

By David A. Fahrenthold and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

Maryland plans to dramatically increase the area of the Chesapeake Bay that is closed to oyster harvests, Gov. Martin O'Malley said Thursday, offering an expanded foothold to an iconic species that has dropped to 1 percent of its peak population.

O'Malley (D), speaking at an Annapolis oyster factory-turned-museum, said the state would ban harvesting on 24 percent of its most bountiful oyster grounds, up from 9 percent now. The off-limits area would total 8,640 acres.

Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin said later that the long-term plan is to expand the sanctuary to 40 percent of the state's high-quality grounds.

Officials said the move, proposed by state environmental regulators, would be the largest reduction in harvestable area in Maryland in memory. Along with a related push to encourage oystermen to farm oysters rather than catch them, the measure would strike at an archetype that has survived -- barely -- into modern times: the free-roaming waterman, at liberty to take any oyster he can find.

O'Malley said the proposal, which needs his final approval after a public comment period, is part of an effort to alter "the put and take and replace and shuffle" approach of recent decades.

Maryland has spent millions on a system that takes oysters from hatcheries and disease-ridden natural breeding grounds and dumps them in other parts of the bay to be caught. The idea was to save the oyster and the waterman. But the state wound up with fewer of both.

About 530 of the state's 6,000 licensed watermen catch oysters now, down from 2,000 in the early 1980s. The state's oyster harvest fell 95 percent in the same period because of harvesting and a pair of virulent diseases.

"We can do better," O'Malley said. "We need to do better. . . . This is something that is long overdue."

Before the first colonists arrived, the Chesapeake's oysters piled up in "reefs" large enough to break the surface. But after years of voracious harvesting -- including periods in the 1800s when poaching watermen shot it out with "oyster police" -- most places are left with mud and scattered bivalves.

The premise of the new plan is that the bay needs oysters, which provide a natural water filter. By setting aside large protected areas, officials said they could improve the odds that shellfish would reproduce and that baby oysters, drifting in the current, would "set" on an adult's shell.

"It's like, for them, looking for a needle in a haystack . . . and so most [baby oysters] are probably going to die" in barren areas, said Rom Lipcius, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who helped create a thriving oyster reef in Virginia's Great Wicomico River.

An increase in the area set aside as oyster sanctuary might not be noticed by local seafood eaters: Most of the oysters eaten locally don't come from the Chesapeake.

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