Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Nature Conservancy Endorse Maryland Oyster Recovery Plan

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The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) announced support for Maryland’s new oyster restoration plan, calling it a strong first step towards significantly increasing oyster numbers in the Chesapeake Bay.

The plan proposes a new approach for managing this critical resource for all of its different values. The plan would create big oyster reefs in certain areas of the Bay that can not be harvested (sanctuary reefs), increase job opportunities in oyster farming in separate areas, and retain some reefs for watermen to harvest wild oysters. Included in the plan is a significant increase in the area of productive oyster beds to be set aside as sanctuaries. An increase in the acreage of sanctuaries will provide more habitat for fish, help water quality, and provide protected populations of oysters.

“Our native oyster is part of the public trust, and we have a clear and urgent responsibility to restore this iconic species to the Chesapeake Bay,” said Governor O’Malley. “Today marks a critical next step in our efforts to rebuild the population for ecological and economic benefits. By some projections, today’s actions could contribute as much as $25 million to Maryland’s economy and create over 200 jobs.”

“The Governor recognizes that we need to give more attention to restoring oysters to save the Bay ecology. That’s a huge shift.  But he also understands the economic needs of Marylanders who work on the water. The plan helps create an aquaculture-based oyster industry in the state, and also allows for some traditional harvesting, said Mark Bryer, director of TNC’s Chesapeake Program

“Governor O’Malley is proposing to do for oysters what he did for blue crabs.  Bravo. This plan will bring more oysters to the Bay.  That will be good for the ecology and good for the economy.  Oyster lovers will benefit and more jobs in the seafood industry will be created.  What a win for everyone,” said Will Baker, president of CBF.

Currently, many productive oyster beds in the Chesapeake Bay are planted specifically for fishermen to harvest. That practice not only slowed the restoration of once-thriving oyster numbers in the Bay, but also failed to revive the previously profitable oyster industry. In other regions the industry has become profitable by farming oysters—using cages, bags, and racks for raising hatchery-produced oyster seed. Maryland’s new plan aims to help watermen transition to farming oysters rather than harvesting wild oysters.

In recent years science has concluded that larger, interconnected oyster sanctuaries rather than flat beds are better able to thrive despite disease and other stresses. The new plan would mean concentrating sanctuaries in a few rivers and areas, rather than scattering them, and building sanctuary oyster reefs higher, which may make them better able to persist in the face of degraded water quality.

Setting aside, restoring and protecting productive bars is in the public interest, as unspoiled oyster reefs serve important ecological functions that benefit everyone.  Oysters are pollution vacuum cleaners – a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.   And the reefs that oysters form provide essential habitat for commercially and recreationally important fish.

Recently as little as four percent of productive oyster bottom is protected from harvest; the Governor’s proposal sets aside 24 percent of the Bay bottom that currently is, or can be, a productive oyster habitat as an oyster sanctuary area. These sanctuary areas have been identified scientifically to ensure a high degree of success for oyster growth. The U.S. Army Corps has estimated about 36,000 acres of productive bottom exists in the Maryland portion of the Bay.

CBF and TNC believe this proposal to set aside 24 percent of oyster reefs should be considered a minimum step towards successful oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay.

The plan also proposes to substantially reduce illegal harvesting of oysters, which to date has been a significant challenge in restoring the Bay’s oysters.  The Governor’s plan proposes to curb poaching by concentrating sanctuary reefs, making them easier to patrol, and by using improved monitoring technology.

The state proposal closely follows recommendations to improve oyster restoration made last February by the Oyster Advisory Commission. The 21-member Commission of scientists, watermen, anglers, businessmen, economists, environmental advocates, and elected officials was appointed by Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Secretary John Griffin in September 2007

The plan proposes to remove many of the obstacles to oyster farming in Maryland. It lays out strategies for leasing Bay bottom to watermen or other commercial interests, and to expediting permits. In addition to recommendations made by the Oyster Advisory Commission, the plan closely follows aquaculture legislation passed this past spring in the Maryland General Assembly.

CBF is actively involved in oyster restoration, with its state-of-the-art restoration vessel the Patricia Campbell and its Oyster Recovery Center in Southern Anne Arundel County.

TNC is working in partnership with CBF on oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay, and also recently released a report assessing the health of shellfish reefs worldwide.

source: CBF press release

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