Maryland’s ravaged Chesapeake Bay oyster population shows signs of revival inside the state-created sanctuaries that have been off-limits to harvesting for the past decade, according to a report from the Department of Natural Resources.
Oysters in many of the protected areas are larger and more abundant and show a greater ability to reproduce. The bivalves also give signs that they may eventually regain their critical environmental role of consuming algae and filtering certain pollutants from bay waters.
But the detailed 900-page study, released late Sunday, said it was too early to conclude that efforts to restore oysters — reduced to an estimated 1 percent of historic levels by disease and overfishing — are a success.
“The degradation of the oyster resource occurred over the last 150 years,” the study said. “Hence it is unrealistic to expect a reversal within a decade.”
The analysis, reviewed by a panel of outside experts, recommends that the state continue to maintain sanctuaries in 20 to 30 percent of Maryland’s portion of the bay. But it also said the state should consider altering sanctuary boundaries, reopening some protected areas for harvesting.
The report is expected to play a key role in Maryland’s review of policies governing the 51 sanctuaries, which cover more than 253,000 acres of bay bottom.
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The most pressing decision involves the fate of restoration work in the Tred Avon River, a tributary of the Choptank River, a project halted by the Department of Natural Resources this past winter under pressure from watermen. They are skeptical of the value of the restoration efforts, which include the creation of artificial reefs implanted with lab-grown oysters in some sanctuaries. The sanctuaries include some of the bay’s most productive oyster beds.
The watermen have an ally in Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who campaigned on a promise of easing state regulations that he said constituted a “war on watermen.”
The state’s Oyster Advisory Commission will review the report and is expected to make recommendations to the department on the Tred Avon and other sanctuaries. The 23-member panel — composed of elected officials, watermen, environmental scientists and other stakeholders — was scheduled to meet Monday evening in Annapolis. The state must tell the Army Corps of Engineers within the next couple of weeks if it wants to resume restoration work on the Tred Avon.
The federal government has mandated that Maryland and Virginia each restore oyster populations to historic levels in five bay tributaries. Federal and state funding in Maryland has concentrated on three areas: the Tred Avon and Little Choptank rivers and Harris Creek — all part of the Choptank River system.
The report focuses on what has happened to the oyster population since 2010. That’s when the administration of then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) more than doubled the number of sanctuaries to cover 24 percent of the bay’s oyster habitat.
The report grouped sanctuaries — as well as areas open to commercial shellfish harvesting — into categories based on population growth and density. The report said oyster biomass, the dry weight of living matter, increased in many sanctuaries in 2014 and 2015. Other cordoned-off areas showed no changes. Oyster bars open to harvest showed a decline in biomass, on average.
Researchers recommended that the state consider opening some of the lower-performing sanctuary areas to carefully controlled commercial harvest.
Last week, another study found that intensive restoration efforts in Harris Creek have shown positive results. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said artificial reefs seeded with over 2 billion juvenile oysters — at a cost of $31 million in federal and state funds — have hit benchmarks of 50 mature oysters per square meter.
It’s not certain whether conservation and commercial interests will be able to reach consensus at Monday evening’s session.
Bill Goldsborough, a commission member and fisheries director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a conservation and watchdog group, said the state report seemed skewed in favor of opening some sanctuaries to harvest when the opposite should be under consideration.
“What’s to say we shouldn’t increase the number of sanctuaries?” Goldsborough said. “The science is pretty clear on how well Harris Creek has done.”
Robert Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association and a commission member, said there hasn’t been enough time to absorb the voluminous report.
“They just handed it to us last night and it’s 900 pages long, and I’m supposed to make a decision on it in less than 24 hours?” he said. “I don’t think that’s making a very responsible choice. We agreed to get the best science available, and now we need time to review it.”