Watermen Fight to Protect Oyster Harvesting Techniques

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.