Maryland Gov. O'Malley's plan could aid oysters and the Chesapeake.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

THE CHESAPEAKE Bay and the oysters that call it home are treasures. One tastier than the other, we might add. But both have been in serious trouble for more than 20 years. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) announced an ambitious three-part plan last week to help the oysters and the watermen who depend on them. By increasing the number of oyster sanctuaries and expanding leasing opportunities for aquaculture businesses, Mr. O'Malley wants to help improve the health of the bay and its tributaries by trying to restore oysters to their historic levels.

The O'Malley plan calls for an increase in oyster sanctuaries from 9 percent to 24 percent of quality habitat. This would give the bivalves a chance to grow, reproduce and develop a resistance to bay diseases without the pressure of being gobbled up by watermen. Because oysters are water filterers, their growth also would help clean the area's water. The strategy calls for 167,720 acres of natural oyster bars to be available to the watermen. It would open up more than 95,000 acres of oyster bars that are now off-limits to leasing for aquaculture and streamline the regulatory process. This would allow commercial interests to cultivate and harvest oysters. The state Department of Natural Resources estimates that 150 oyster aquaculture operations could spring up in Maryland in the short term. If this industry takes off, it could open new opportunities for watermen. They could use them. Times have been tough for them -- and for the oysters.

Overdevelopment has flooded the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed with pollution that feeds algae blooms. These blooms have killed oysters by the millions. The oyster population has been at a mere 1 percent of its historic levels for 15 years. As a result, the number of licensed watermen harvesting oysters has dropped from 2,000 in the 1980s to 529 today. Mr. O'Malley's proposal is the culmination of a process he started in 2007 with the Oyster Advisory Commission. The plan could change. But what we've heard so far, on top of a renewed sense of urgency by the federal government, gives us encouragement that the cycle of unfulfilled promises to help the Chesapeake Bay could be coming to an end.

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