By Jesse Yeatman
Thursday, April 29, 2010; SM18
While Maryland officials have been touting the comeback of the blue crab, Chesapeake Bay oysters have continued to show little or no rebound despite restoration efforts during the past decade.
Since 1994, the state and federal governments have spent $40 million in Maryland on oyster restoration activities, including stocking public bars for harvest by watermen, and creating sanctuaries in which to grow oysters, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. However, harvest numbers have languished at 1 percent of what they were at the end of the 19th century, and high-quality oyster bars have decreased 70 percent from 200,000 to 36,000 acres.
The blue crab population, on the other hand, has increased by 60 percent from last year and is at its highest level since 1997, according to a winter dredge survey of the bay.
Maryland and Virginia worked together two years ago to impose restrictions on harvesting female crabs, which Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and other state officials said this month has resulted in more adult female crabs last year and more young crabs this year. The states aimed for a 34 percent reduction in female crab harvests, a goal officials said will sustain the population by growing spawning stock.
In addition, the state offered restoration work to about 900 watermen after the blue crab limits were imposed in 2008, to make up for the revenue the watermen lost by not crabbing. Under one such project, watermen removed about 8,000 abandoned crab pots or crab pot fragments from Maryland waterways in February and March of this year.
Sgt. Art Windemuth, public information officer for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, said the department is planning to hire three additional seasonal officers to help target crabbing violators.
The state hopes more regulations will help the oyster population, as well.
In December, officials unveiled a plan that would designate about a quarter of productive oyster bars in Maryland waters as sanctuaries, taking them away from the public fishery that supports about 500 watermen in the state. The plan also opens up opportunities for watermen to move into aquaculture by leasing to them areas in which they can grow their own oysters.
Watermen have fought the plan, saying they had no input into the areas selected for sanctuaries. Some watermen would have been more receptive to the plan had they been consulted on its drafting, Jack Fringer, secretary of the Calvert County Watermen's Association, said this year. Several bills in this year's legislative session would have weakened or delayed the restoration plan but they did not pass.
Mike Naylor, the assistant director of fishery services for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said he hopes to submit the regulatory package with finalized boundaries for sanctuaries in May. Naylor had hoped to submit it in February, but was delayed because of some of the oyster-related bills in the state legislature and by ongoing negotiations with watermen and environmental groups.
"We want to be sure we get it right, as right as we can," Naylor said. "These sanctuaries are permanent."
His goal is to have the plan in effect before the next oyster season begins in October.
"There are still a couple outstanding areas where we're not sure where the lines are going to be," he said of the sanctuaries.
Southern Maryland watermen are pushing against plans to establish a sanctuary in the upper half of the St. Mary's River, while other groups are asking to have the entire river delineated as a sanctuary.
"We try to make a living out there. We don't want to be out of business," Jackie Bowen, a waterman from Lusby who opposes the creation of sanctuaries, said at a public presentation on the oyster plans earlier this year.
"Once that's gone, it's gone forever," he said of public oyster bars. Most watermen also are not happy about increased patrols against oyster poaching and other violations of commercial fishing regulations, Naylor said.
The number of crabbing violations is about three times the number of oyster violations, Windemuth said.
There were about 140,000 bushels of oysters harvested by about 560 licensed watermen in Maryland in 2009. By comparison, Windemuth said, there were almost 950,000 crab bushels harvested by more than 5,800 commercial crabbers.
There are about 48,500 recreational crab licenses; recreational oystermen are not tracked.
Even with the restrictions on catching females in place, watermen actually harvested more crabs this past season -- 53 million pounds -- than in seven of the past 10 years, yet were able to stay below the target harvest level of 46 percent.
Still, there are those who think not enough has been done to restore the crab population. "They won't give a chance to let the crabs come back," said Leonard Copsey, owner of the Drift Inn on the Patuxent River in Mechanicsville and several other St. Mary's County restaurants. His recommendation: Don't catch any females for a couple of years.
"Give it two years, by God, we'd have some crabs," he said.