O'Malley to create oyster 'sanctuaries'

By Aaron C. Davis and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said Friday that he would create large "sanctuaries" for the Chesapeake Bay's oysters, hoping to reverse the bivalves' decline by strictly limiting where watermen can catch them.

O'Malley (D) announced the plan -- first floated months ago -- on a deck overlooking the water in Annapolis. He said that if a legislative committee approves, Maryland would ban watermen from 25 percent of Maryland's productive "oyster grounds." Now, 9 percent are set aside.

"To fail to act when we are down to the last 1 percent of the oyster population does not seem to me to be a responsible way to treat the bay or to treat watermen," O'Malley said.

The Chesapeake's oysters once grew so thickly that their "reefs" were a hazard to boat traffic. But, in the past century, they have become the saddest of the bay's ecological sob stories, devastated by over-fishing and two shellfish diseases.

The annual harvest has dropped 90 percent in the past 25 years, according to state figures, and the number of working oystermen has dropped from 4,000 in 1990 to less than 400.

The plan announced Friday would make some of the best-producing grounds off-limits to oystermen.

But O'Malley said his plan would compensate them by providing training in oyster "farming," where bivalves can be raised on leased stretches of the bottom. "I think the greater hurt to watermen would come from allowing the remaining 1 percent of the oyster population to totally implode," O'Malley said.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said that his members are dubious. Simns said that watermen successfully lobbied to retain access to some of the productive areas but were unhappy that they will be barred from areas that had been harvested for decades.

"They were trying to force us into aquaculture," Simns said. "If we started today, it would be four years before we could make a profit. What are we supposed to do in that four years' time?"

O'Malley's move comes just weeks after he announced a great success in bringing back another Chesapeake icon, the blue crab. In 2008, both Maryland and Virginia set new limits on the crab harvest. This spring, they announced that the population had rebounded.

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