The fruit of a third of the work done by state agencies, organizations and fisheries to restore the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay is being stolen through illegal harvesting, according to biologists who research oyster beds in the bay. Others say that number is even higher, closer to 80-percent of the managed reserves and sanctuaries. In all, fisheries Director Tom O’Connell said the state has invested about $50-million in oyster restoration since 1994. The oyster population is still around one-percent of historic numbers.
By KERRY DAVIS
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS –The fruit of a third of the work done by state agencies, organizations and fisheries to restore the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay is being stolen through illegal harvesting, according to biologists who research oyster beds in the bay.
Others say that number is even higher, closer to 80 percent of the managed reserves and sanctuaries.
In all, fisheries Director Tom O’Connell said the state has invested about $50 million in oyster restoration since 1994. Yet the oyster population is still around 1 percent of historic numbers.
“We have to make some tough choices because if we don’t, those resources and the watermen culture could really collapse,” O’Connell said.
Donald Meritt is the oyster hatchery director at the Horn Point Laboratory near Cambridge and estimates that 80 percent of the oysters produced at the lab are illegally harvested, based on the appearance of oyster beds that are frequently checked on after being planted with hatchery spat, or baby oysters, on cleaned oyster shells.
“I don’t use the term poaching because it’s theft,” Meritt said. “Poaching sounds like a victimless crime and really, poachers steal from all of us.”
Watermen believe that while theft occurs, the number can’t be as high as Meritt claims.
“I could see a third of it being stolen, but 80 percent seems too high,” said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.
It costs about $1.5 million to produce spat at the Horn Point facility each year. The state pays for about $500,000 through the Department of Natural Resources and another $500,000 comes from the University of Maryland. About $400,000 worth of operations are federally funded, with smaller donations from preservation groups.
Ken Paynter runs the University of Maryland’s Paynter Labs, which monitors the oyster restoration efforts once the new oysters leave Horn Point. Paynter said 33 percent of those oyster beds are illegally harvested based on police records, citations and eyewitness accounts at protected locations from 2008 to 2010.
While collecting the data, Paynter was shocked to find poachers while patrolling the sanctuaries.
“We called the Natural Resources Police and would go over and say, ‘Hey, do you guys know this is a sanctuary,'” Paynter said. “They’d say, ah, no, we had no idea.”
Some believe so many oysters are taken either because there are not enough Natural Resources Police officers on staff, or the fines for getting caught are too low. Maryland’s General Assembly waded into the issue in this year’s legislative session, passing multiple bills that increase fines for poaching oysters and other creatures to as high as $25,000.
But people who are trying to increase the oyster population say protecting oysters is extremely difficult and complicated.
Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, remembers the moment he heard about the thefts so vividly, he can recall it word-for-word. Frosh was at the Horn Point Laboratory Oyster Hatchery and Meritt was giving Frosh and others a tour.
“It was a very startling and very depressing exchange,” Frosh recalled. “He said, ‘what do you think is the biggest cause of oyster losses in the Chesapeake Bay?’ I thought, it must be pollution, disease or over-harvesting and the answer was ‘No, no, no, it’s theft.’ And my jaw hit the floor.”
Some worry tougher penalties for poaching won’t be as effective without funding the police force that enforces those laws.
The Natural Resources Police force employs about 215 staff, with an authorization of 247. That’s down from 440 authorized staff in 1990.
A bill that would have mandated hiring more Natural Resources Police officers died in committee this year, which frustrated Senator Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, who sponsored the bill.
“The whole purpose of a police force is to prevent crime,” Dyson said. “The opposite is happening on our waterways because there are so few police officers.”
Meritt said it’s most important that planted oysters grow old so that entire ecosystems can grow up around them, adding mussels and other creatures to the water-filtering mix. That can’t happen if they are continually raided.
Paynter agreed, citing research that shows 8-year-old oysters can filter up to three times the water a 2-year-old oyster can.
Natural Resources Police records show 165 separate citations for oyster-related fishing crimes in 2008. There were 187 citations in 2009, but only 76 in 2010, according to DNR records.
Sgt. Art Windemuth, Natural Resources Police spokesman, said the drop-off in citations last year could be explained by multiple factors. Those range from cuts to staff and the possibility that the worst offenders were caught in the first wave of a crackdown on oyster poaching, funded with specially set-aside overtime money from the DNR.
“I think it’s a combination of all the factors and only time will tell if it’s a true decrease in the amount of activity because it’s just not occurring, or it’s all these other factors,” Windemuth said.
Dyson said he grew annoyed with all of the poaching legislation aimed at tougher penalties as this year’s legislative session stretched on, since he started to see that his bill to hire more Natural Resources Police officers wouldn’t pass due to lack of support because of budget concerns.
“I voted for them (the poaching bills) even though in the end I started to think they were a joke, because if you don’t have the people to enforce them, what’s the point,” Dyson said.
While legislators and watermen alike agree that adding more staff to the police force would deter poachers, no one believes such a bill will pass next year, either.
“I would love it to, but realistically, it’s not likely to happen,” Frosh said. “Next year is going to be just as bad as this year and we will probably have a special session in the fall just looking at ways to raise revenue to keep the fires lit.”
What could happen, instead of adding more police, is controversial and being carefully approached within the DNR.
The DNR is exploring whether to add a permanent GPS-tracking device to all boats that commercially fish in Maryland, O’Connell said.
“If we went down that pathway, we wouldn’t necessarily need more officers on the water,” O’Connell said. “It’s a smarter way to utilize more technology.”
O’Connell said he was surprised when the idea was broached by watermen who have had enough of illegal poaching and called him after news coverage in January, when some Eastern Shore watermen discovered tracking devices on their boats.
The tracking devices were later tied to the DNR and some watermen protested, asking whether the DNR had acquired warrants before using the devices. DNR Secretary John Griffin later wrote to news outlets that the devices were placed on the boats legally.
Simns said he has decided to support the idea of the DNR requiring the use of tracking devices on boats.
“Yeah the watermen, especially the ones breaking the law, they’ll raise hell,” Simns said about the possibility of tracking devices. “I’ll have to take the heat from them but that’s OK, because honest watermen want to do whatever it takes.”
Babies are up and deaths are down in the Chesapeake Bay’s beleaguered oyster population. Officials announced a two-month survey by the Department of Natural Resources found an average of nearly 80 baby oysters in every bushel of shells dredged up from 260 locations, the highest number recorded since 1997. DNR biologists also found the lowest percentage of dead oysters they have seen since 1985.
By BRIAN HOOKS
CAMBRIDGE – On the banks of the Choptank River sits a concrete pier with what looks like 52 above-ground swimming pools. Officials say the tanks, part of an $11 million state oyster hatchery expansion, will be pivotal in restoring oysters to the Chesapeake Bay.
Up to 2 billion baby oysters, or spat, will be produced annually on the new pier when the facility is in full swing, said Donald “Mutt” Meritt, manager of Horn Point Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. That’s as much spat as the center and the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership jointly produced over the past 10 years.
The baby oysters are essential to the state’s plan for saving the Chesapeake Bay oyster. The plan, expected to go into effect Sept. 6, substantially increases the percentage of protected oyster habitat, or sanctuaries, and allows for leasing of the bay’s bottom for private oyster farming.
“What we’re striving to do is jump-start Mother Nature in targeted areas that have the greatest likelihood of success,” said Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership.
With the oysters in the bay decimated in recent decades by disease and pollution, state officials said the sanctuaries are needed to stabilize a reproductive oyster population. The total bay oyster harvest saw a record low in 2004, producing less than 27,000 bushels — less than 2 percent of the 1986 harvest of 1.5 million bushels, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said he is optimistic Maryland can harness a share of the oyster farming industry that has already exploded in Asia, California and the Chesapeake waters of Virginia.
“Scientists and even watermen — some watermen — have been saying for 100 years that we need to move from the hunter-gatherer approach, which might have worked with this resource 100 or 200 years ago, and instead into one that strikes a better balance with stewardship,” O’Malley told News21 in an interview earlier this summer. “If people don’t have a sense of ownership, they will utterly decimate and deplete a resource.”
O’Malley joined state and regional leaders at a dedication of the hatchery expansion on Sunday.
Resource economists say the bay could support a private aquaculture industry of up to $40 million. Although Maryland has yet to take advantage of this, DNR expects to change this by opening more than 600,000 acres of bay-bottom for private aquaculture leasing.
But many watermen say they aren’t sold on the state’s overall plan. At public hearings this summer, many expressed fears that the sanctuaries would kill oysters rather than protect them.
“Sanctuaries don’t have a very good track record,” said Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert County Watermen”s Association, at a July 13 hearing in Leonardtown, Md. “Oyster bars are very much like your garden or flower bed; if you plant it and walk away from it, at the end of the summer you’re not going to have anything left.”
But officials from Maryland’s DNR say sanctuaries have not been attempted on such a large scale in state waters. Mike Naylor, head of the DNR shellfish division, said the “failed” sanctuaries to which critics refer were poor habitats for reproduction — or victimized by illegal activities.
“The sanctuaries that have been in place tended to be in unproductive areas,” Naylor said. “The few exceptions to that have documented and widespread poaching that caused significant problems.”
The oyster sanctuaries in the bay — where harvesting is illegal — currently occupy 3,000 acres, or about 9 percent of viable habitat. Every year, the Oyster Recovery Partnership plants spat from Horn Point onto the sanctuaries, which are expected to expand to about 9,000 acres in September, or about 25 percent of viable habitat. They would be created along half of what DNR has deemed the best oyster bars for reproduction and survival rates.
Since the partnership began planting spat in 2000, a percentage has always been dedicated to eventual harvest.
Last year, 40 percent of the 647 million spat were planted either in harvest areas or managed reserves, which watermen can harvest when the oysters grow to maturity in four or five years.
“Once the production levels (at Horn Point) increase, I think there’s going to be plenty for everybody,” Abel said.
Doug Lipton, a resource economist and associate professor at the University of Maryland, said the shift from wild oyster harvesting to private aquaculture might not be as radical as some watermen think. Lipton said the ORP restoration efforts are already an example of “public” aquaculture; spat are planted in the summer, and when oyster season returns in the fall and winter, the watermen are free to collect their daily limit of adult oysters.
“It really doesn’t resemble anything like a true wild fishery,” said Lipton. “When you add in what the state and the federal government (are) paying to get those oysters for (watermen) to harvest, it’s a losing proposition.”
According to the DNR, the state spent $40 million on such oyster restoration efforts from 1994 through 2008 — an average of $2.7 million a year. The effort has been considered a failure by many, since yearly harvests have yet to top 500,000 bushels.
Lipton authored a study in 2007 in which he estimated the Virginia and Maryland waters of the bay could support a private aquaculture industry of about 250 businesses and produce 3.2 million bushels of oysters a year, with an annual value between $30 million and $40 million. The last time 3.2 million bushels were harvested by Chesapeake watermen was in 1980, according to fishery data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Virginia already has a huge head start. Its private oyster farms grew in production between 2005 and 2009, from roughly 4,000 bushels to about 50,000 bushels, according to a report published in June by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Mike Oesterling, co-author of the report, estimated Virginia oyster farms contributed $7 million to the state’s economy in 2009.
Up until now, Maryland has done little to encourage private oyster farms, and so only a few exist.
Kevin McClarren, manager of Choptank Oyster Co. in Cambridge, operates one of the few oyster farms in Maryland waters. The company lays down 1.75 million oyster seed and sells about 1 million oysters annually, he said. At any given time of the year, the company has 5 million to 8 million oysters growing in a mosaic of nets and floating frames on the Choptank River.
Normally, the winter holiday season and the week leading up to Valentine’s Day are the peak sales season for Choptank Oyster Co., but McClarren said the company’s biggest week on record was this year, in the days leading up to the fourth of July.
Unlike the watermen, McClarren deals with oyster work year-round, extracting larvae from adult oysters and feeding the larvae algae until they stick to shell as spat, introducing spat to the Choptank waters, then giving them space as they grow for the next three years or so.
McClarren also has oysters to sell at all times of the year, as opposed to the nine-week season in fall and winter when most watermen catch and sell oysters.
“Business is booming right now,” McClarren said.
He said he considers the most difficult part of the business selling the oysters for the right price to market-savvy buyers, not growing them.
“Everybody thinks you just buy some seed oysters, throw them overboard, and come back next year to count your money. But that’s just not the way it happens,” McClarren said.
A new report says Chesapeake Bay oysters appear to be becoming more resistant to diseases that have harmed their populations in recent years. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation report released last week also calls for increasing oyster sanctuaries, reef building and anti-poaching efforts to promote resistance. The report is based on a review of recent research, state data from Maryland and Virginia and interviews with oyster experts. Maryland released an oyster restoration plan in May calling for putting 25-percent of oyster reefs off limits to harvesting. The bay foundation report calls for Virginia and Maryland to create sanctuaries protecting about 40 percent of historical oyster grounds.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has set the dates, times and locations for four public regulatory hearings as part of the implementation of Governor Martin O’Malley’s Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Plan. O’Malley and DNR submitted the proposed regulations in May after months of public discussion, DNR open houses and robust input from thousands of citizens following the governor’s announcement of the plan in December 2009.
In January, O’Malley sponsored legislation to promote oyster restoration and aquaculture in Maryland by streamlining the regulatory process, expanding oyster sanctuaries in the bay and opening areas to aquaculture to reduce the pressure on wild oysters and to provide alternative economic opportunities for Maryland watermen. The legislation passed overwhelmingly in the General Assembly.
The Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population has languished at one-percent of historic levels since 1994. The quality oyster bars have decreased by 80-percent, and the number of harvesters has dwindled from 2,000 in the mid-1980s to just over 500 annually since 2002. Today there are only eight oyster processing companies in Maryland, down from 58 in 1974.
These public events will feature an overview of the proposed regulations by DNR staff followed by opportunities for individual comments. Comments may also be submitted online at email@example.com or by mail to: MD-DNR Fisheries Service, Oyster Recovery, Tawes State Office Bldg, 580 Taylor Ave. B-2, Annapolis, MD 21401.
The public hearings are scheduled as follows:
July 7 – 6pm. Anne Arundel Community College, Pascal Center for the Performing Arts, 101 College Parkway, Arnold, MD 21012
July 13 – 6pm. Leonardtown High School Auditorium, 23995 Point Lookout Road, Leonardtown, MD 20650
July 22 – 6pm. Salisbury University, Caruthers Hall Auditorium, 1101 Camden Avenue, Salisbury, MD 21801
August 5 – 6pm. Chesapeake College, Todd Performing Arts Center, Route 50 and Route 213, Wye Mills, MD 21679.
Members of the Eastern Shore delegation met last week and reportedly came out against the plan to restore oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Eastern Shore Senator Richard Colburn was among those who came out against the plan, saying it would cause substantial harm to the livelihood of area watermen. The Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan would increase the amount of oyster sanctuaries in the Bay from 9-percent to roughly a quarter of the quality oyster habitat. It would also encourage the adoption of aquaculture by increasing leasing areas and streamlining the permitting process.
By JENNIFER HLAD
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS – More than 150 watermen took a day off from the water Tuesday to protest a proposed oyster restoration plan and support a bill they say will help them hang on to their livelihood.
The bill would protect the watermen’s right to use certain equipment and techniques — power dredging and patent tongs — to harvest oysters. The areas where oystermen can use that equipment is already limited, and the bill would prevent the state from further restrictions.
“We see this as a preemptive bill,” said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Caroline, who sponsored the bill and introduced it Tuesday in the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Watermen also say their ability to harvest oysters is threatened by Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan.
The 10-point plan includes increasing oyster sanctuaries from 9 percent of the current habitat to about 25 percent, leaving less area for struggling oystermen to harvest. Watermen worry the state’s next step will be to ban power dredging and patent tonging all together.
The oyster restoration plan does not specifically address the harvesting methods. But Department of Natural Resources officials say Colburn’s bill would inhibit the department’s ability to establish oyster sanctuaries in the lower part of the Chesapeake Bay, where most of the dredging happens.
Watermen say power dredging can do more to restore oyster populations than sanctuaries can do.
Bucky Chance, a waterman from Bozman, pointed to the Tangier Sound as an example. Ten years ago, he said, an oyster was hard to come by in those waters. Now, many oystermen are catching their limit there every day … and seeing plenty of young oysters as well.
“Every place we have used (this equipment),” they’re coming back. Every place we’re not, they’re barren,” Chance told the Senate committee.
But Tom O’Connell, director of the Department of Natural Resources fisheries service, said dredging can be destructive in some parts of the bay.
“We know for certain” that power dredging is not sustainable over time in certain areas, O’Connell said.
Joe Kubert, a waterman from Kent Island, said dredging “fluffs up” the bottom, providing a cleaner spot for spat – or baby oysters – to attach to and creating a good habitat for crabs and fish.
Jeff Harrison, a year-round commercial fisherman from Tilghman Island, said the oyster industry “is basically surviving off of power dredging and tonging.”
“If I have to stop power dredging, that’s six months out of the year gone, and I can’t just crab and fish,” Harrison said. “I would have to find another job. Who’s going to hire a 51-year-old fat man? There’s nothing much for me to do.”
Ronnie Fithian, a Kent County commissioner who worked as a waterman for about 28 years, said the issue is “life or death for the oystermen.”
He called the idea of sanctuaries “a joke,” and said oystermen would argue that “the more you work an area, the better it is.”
Del. Richard Sossi, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, said that given the slumping economy and difficult job market, the timing of the oyster restoration proposal seems off.
“Doesn’t it strike you as a bad time to gamble on people’s livelihoods?” he said, during a Tuesday morning presentation about the oyster proposal to the House Environmental Matters Committee.
Secretary of Natural Resources John Griffin said the proposal is intended to help oyster production, not to force anyone out of work or limit power dredging. But Sen. Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, also questioned the timing of the oyster proposal.
The Senate bill preserving power dredging and patent tonging could provide a transitional period for oystermen, Harris said, allowing them to keep using the equipment as the state moves forward with sanctuaries.
After the hearing, Colburn said Harris’ comments and the discussion they spurred were a “ray of hope.” Colburn said he would be open to giving the bill an expiration date, perhaps five years from now.
Capital News Service reporter Adam Kerlin contributed to this story.
By CATHERINE KRIKSTAN
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS – Over the past decade, billions of oysters have been planted in the Chesapeake Bay, pushed off of boats by the thousands to settle on sanctuaries and managed reserves throughout the watershed.
While these plantings are a much-needed ecological improvement for an unhealthy bay, it is unclear whether planting alone will be enough to restore the bay’s native oyster population.
Habitat degradation, disease and overharvesting have taken their toll on the native oyster, reducing its numbers to just one percent of peak population.
But on the heels of a federal mandate to clean up the bay, Gov. Martin O’Malley has announced a multi-faceted oyster restoration approach that may provide several missing pieces of the restoration puzzle.
Experts have lauded the plan’s focus on expanding the state’s network of oyster sanctuaries and increasing the state’s enforcement of harvesting regulations — a lack of which has hindered the productivity of oyster restoration programs.
“Illegal harvesting of oysters is really hurting our efforts,” said Steve Allen, senior manager of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. “It’s almost like we take two steps forward, and then if there’s an illegal harvest, that’s three steps back.”
Since 2000, the Oyster Recovery Partnership has planted more than two billion oysters on sanctuaries and managed reserves throughout the bay, forming a unique bottom habitat for marine life and helping to filter sediment and other particles from the water column.
“Any oyster that goes into the water is serving an ecological purpose,” Allen said.
Therein lies one of the most important benefits of oyster plantings.
“That shell wasn’t there before. It wasn’t accessible as a habitat before. But now it is, no matter where it’s going to be. Whether it be on a harvest bar, whether it be on a managed reserve, whether it be on a sanctuary, it’s going to be utilized by something else — oysters, crabs, barnacles, mussels, whatever — that is going to come into that area because that wasn’t there before,” said Allen.
The Oyster Recovery Partnership obtains oyster larvae from the Cambridge-based Horn Point Laboratory, an environmental research facility run through the University of Maryland.
The spat on shell are planted on restoration sites, concentrated in places like the Chester, Choptank and Patuxent Rivers.
Biologists sample the planting sites to monitor for oyster mortality and growth and disease presence.
When sanctuaries — which are restricted to any form of harvest — inexplicably lose oysters, illegal oyster harvesting is thought to be the culprit.
A recent oyster bar survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Paynter Labs detected significant population increases on all but one of the oyster bars that had been planted by the Oyster Recovery Partnership the previous year. Biologists attributed the inexplicable loss of more than 60,000 oysters to poaching.
Indeed, the Natural Resources Police, which monitors and enforces illegal oyster harvesting, relies heavily on notifications of poaching from both citizens and biologists like those at Paynter Labs, said spokesman Art Windemuth.
In recent weeks, officers with the Natural Resources Police observed two men harvesting oysters within designated sanctuaries in the Choptank River and Tangier Sound.
But poaching is a problem that is difficult to measure.
“Is it a problem? Yes, it is a problem,” Windemuth said. “And I think the recent arrest of individuals (harvesting oysters) on sanctuaries indicates that. To what extent? It’s hard to gauge.”
Mick Blackistone, editor of the Waterman’s Gazette, doesn’t believe that poaching is a big issue. “If you get caught, you get busted,” he said.
But he predicts the problem could get worse once the governor’s restoration plan goes into effect.
Expanding sanctuaries from 9 to 24 percent of the bay’s remaining quality oyster habitat might encourage watermen to cross into these restricted areas to harvest, as they find themselves with less good bottom to work with, Blackistone said.
“If some people get desperate, then they do things they normally wouldn’t do,” he said.
“But they also know, and will know from us, that of course they shouldn’t do that. And the penalties will be significant,” said Blackistone.
Under O’Malley’s plan, the Natural Resources Police would use radars, cameras and other measures to lessen the chance that poachers might get off scot free.
But for many, it is not just illegal harvesting, but any harvesting, that warrants more regulation. So O’Malley’s promise to ramp up the state’s aquaculture industry, making more than 90,000 acres of land in the bay available to leasing, has been lauded as a step in the right direction.
Allen predicts that aquaculture will become a major component of the region’s maritime industry over the next decade.
“Once we … show (watermen) that they can make money doing oyster aquaculture, I think more of them will get on board and help out with it,” Allen said.
But watermen have been resistant to change.
“You told us what you’re going to do, but what do we do now,” said Blackistone, who raised concern over watermen’s ability to transition to a new industry because of the costs involved, from purchasing new equipment to leasing land to waiting for oysters to grow.
Not to mention the process of learning a new trade.
“If you take somebody that’s 50 or 60 years old who’s a traditional oysterman, that’s a lot to swallow. I’m not saying they won’t make the transition, but the state’s got to be patient. This can’t be done overnight,” Blackistone said.
But for some, a reliance on a wild oyster harvest is a romantic idea that should be abandoned in favor of a more viable approach toward a sustainable harvest. And aquaculture is that approach.
“The experience of the last 40 years demonstrates that a fishery that is subsidized by the state … doesn’t work. It’s declining. There are fewer people in it. They are earning less money, catching fewer oysters every year,” said William Eichbaum, chairman of the Oyster Advisory Commission.
“And if you look globally, there’s virtually no oyster industry … that relies on a wild oyster population for substantial economic activity. So if we want to grow an industry, it’s got to be based on an aquaculture approach,” Eichbaum said.
“(Aquaculture) is what’s happening in the industry, and unless Maryland follows, we won’t be in that industry,” said Eichbaum.
And a renewed oyster industry is intertwined with a renewed oyster population.
“There has to be an understanding between all these groups that we’re all working toward the same basic goal of restoring the health of the bay. Once the health of the bay has been restored, their livelihoods will be somewhat restored. Aquaculture is just one piece of this puzzle,” said Allen.