The Most Important Fish in the Bay Needs Help

Join the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on September 6, 6:30 p.m. at the Eastern Shore Conservation Center in downtown Easton for an evening of all things menhaden. CBF is screening the short film Menhaden: The Most Important Fish in the Bay, followed by a discussion of the current state of the fishery in the Chesapeake Bay. CBF’s Maryland Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden will describe the critical role that menhaden play in the Bay’s food web and answer questions from the audience. One lucky audience member will walk away with a fun and fishy CBF gift basket.

Menhaden face potential new threats along the Atlantic coast. Right now, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is responding by considering revisions to its fishery management plan. One proposed amendment to the plan could help keep more fish in the water by including important guidelines—called “ecological reference points.” These will help fishery managers ensure that enough of these essential fish remain in the water, serving their role as a vital food source.

Any threat to this critical fish is also a threat to the countless Chesapeake critters who rely on it. Learn more about the current state of this fishery and what you can do to help on September 6. This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required at cbf.org/MenhadenFilm. Contact Hilary Gibson at hgibson@cbf.org or 410/543-1999 with questions.

If you can’t make the event, you can still make your voice heard. A public hearing is scheduled for Monday, September 18 from 6-8:00p.m. at Anne Arundel Community College, Cade Center for the Fine Arts – Room 219, 101 College Parkway, Arnold, MD. Written comments on ASMFC’s Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden will be accepted through October 20, 2017. Comments can be sent to comments@asmfc.org (Subject line: Draft Amd. 3).

 

CBF: Pennsylvania Still a Problem with Nitrogen in the Bay

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) assessment of progress made implementing milestone commitments in 2016 found Maryland and Virginia largely on track to meet commitments for reducing pollution and Pennsylvania falling significantly short in reducing nitrogen pollution.

“While there is significant room for improvement in all the states, it is important to note that reduced pollution is benefitting the Bay. Over time, the dead zone is getting smaller, Bay grasses are at record levels, and oysters are rebounding,” said CBF President William C. Baker. “The success all three states have had in reducing pollution from sewage treatment plants is important, but it also masks shortfalls in each of the states’ efforts to reduce pollution from agriculture and urban/suburban runoff. Continued federal and state investments will be key to success on the state level, and we know the payoff will be significant.”

Under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, the states have committed to implementing 60 percent of the practices necessary to restore the Bay by 2017, and 100 percent by 2025. Over the next year, the states and EPA will assess progress and develop new plans to achieve the 2025 goal.

The two-year milestones provide transparency and accountability for restoration efforts. This assessment is for the first year of the 2016-17 milestone period.

CBF’s assessment looked at the practices the states put in place in 2016, as well as selected programs each state has designed to achieve the long-term goals. (Attached to this email is a narrative summary of the Maryland assessment, and a chart summarizing findings for all six states in the Bay watershed and the District of Columbia.)

Pennsylvania practices

Pennsylvania is significantly off track in reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agriculture as well as urban/suburban runoff. Progress in reducing pollution from sewage treatment plants is on track. Overall progress to reduce nitrogen pollution is significantly off track, but efforts to reduce phosphorus and sediment pollution are only slightly off track.

Pennsylvania programs

Pennsylvania’s re-boot committed the Commonwealth to develop and implement an agricultural compliance and enforcement strategy. As part of that strategy inspections were to be conducted on 10 percent of its farms annually. With funding from the Chesapeake Bay Program and other sources, over 1,100 farms were visited between October 2016 and March 2017, an inspection rate below what is needed to visit 10% of farms. However, the pace of inspections has increased now that the process is more established. Roughly 70% of the farms had the required plans. These inspections, however, only assess whether the required plans exist, not whether they are implemented – a major shortfall of state efforts to date.

Pennsylvania also committed to counting and reporting on agricultural practices that are not government funded. A recent Penn State study reported many practices that the Commonwealth had not counted.

Pennsylvania’s efforts to reduce pollution from urban/suburban runoff are showing mixed success. The Commonwealth is significantly off track in reducing pollution from nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. To help jumpstart reductions, the Commonwealth has implemented specific, numeric goals in permits for small municipalities.

“Pennsylvania’s pollution reduction strategy has shown some progress and the Commonwealth is in the process of developing a new watershed implementation plan to carry it toward the 2025 goals,” said CBF Pennsylvania Executive Director Harry Campbell. “But the Commonwealth is considering yet another budget that falls well short of providing the investments necessary for success. Pennsylvania will only be successful with sustained investments in the right places and on the right practices.

Maryland practices

Maryland is slightly off track reducing nitrogen pollution from agriculture, while on track to remove phosphorus and sediment pollution. Urban/suburban efforts have fallen far short for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Maryland’s efforts to upgrade sewage treatment plants are on track. Thus, overall efforts to reduce nitrogen pollution are slightly off track, while pollution reduction efforts for phosphorus and sediment are on track.

Maryland programs

While seeing success in wastewater treatment plants, Maryland is significantly behind in reducing pollution from septic systems. Technologies exist to significantly reduce nitrogen pollution from septic systems, however the state has stopped requiring those technologies to be used for new systems more than 1,000 feet from tidal waters.

There are requirements in Maryland for large municipalities to develop plans and implement technologies to reduce urban/suburban runoff by replacing 20 percent of impervious surfaces with practices that absorb and filter rainwater. While the Maryland Department of the Environment has reviewed those plans, it has not taken action to correct deficiencies. In addition, draft permits for smaller municipalities fail to require any restoration actions in the next five years.

Maryland is implementing its agricultural phosphorus management tool, which will limit the application of phosphorus on land that already has excess phosphorus. Current programs to match excess manure with farms where it can be used safely may need to be expanded.

“We can feel proud that Maryland got off to a strong start in this epic project to restore the Chesapeake and that state leaders remain committed to the Blueprint. From streams in Western Maryland to tidal creeks on the Eastern Shore, we see evidence of cleaner water. But the job is far from done,” said CBF Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost. “We must work together to find solutions for polluted runoff in our cities and suburbs, for failing septic systems in rural areas, and for problems from sprawl development. Given the uncertainties around federal leadership on this effort, we urge the General Assembly and the Hogan Administration to tackle the challenges head-on for our benefit and for the benefit of future generations of Marylanders.”

Virginia practices

Virginia is on track to meet its phosphorus goal for agriculture, and slightly off track for nitrogen and sediment. The Commonwealth is significantly off track in meeting nitrogen and sediment goals for urban/suburban runoff, while only slightly off track for phosphorus. Due to its success with upgrading sewage treatment plants, overall, Virginia is on track for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and slightly off track for sediment.

Virginia programs

Virginia’s efforts to reduce pollution from urban/suburban runoff are continuing to fall short of its goals. While new permits have been issued for both large municipalities and smaller jurisdictions, permit requirements are not sufficient to achieve the necessary pollution reduction by 2025.

Virginia’s agricultural programs have made steady progress, but there is room for improvement. A program funding 100 percent of the costs to fence cattle out of streams was so successful that there is a backlog of more than 400 farmers waiting for funding. And Virginia’s agricultural certainty program has resulted in the approval of 300 plans, covering more than 65,000 acres of cropland. However, implementation of these plans is lagging, Adoption of cover crops is below targets and implementation of forest buffers is also off track.

“It’s not often that we celebrate overachievements, but the incredible progress made in upgrading Virginia’s wastewater treatment plants allows the Commonwealth to remain largely on track for meeting goals to reduce pollution in our waterways,” said CBF Virginia Executive Director Rebecca LePrell. “However, the road doesn’t stop here. As we approach 2025, the success of wastewater treatment plants should serve as a model for addressing challenges in cutting polluted runoff from agriculture, cities, and suburbs. As state elections near, I hope Virginia’s next governor will work with legislators to ensure stable and adequate investment in farm conservation practices and support for local governments to reduce polluted runoff.”

CBF Notes: Catch the Last Two Clean Water Concerts by Erika Koontz

As the first official day of summer arrives, so do the final two Clean Water Concert Series performances here.

Photo by Erika Koontz

Sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the Avalon Foundation, Harrison Street between Dover and Goldsborough will be blocked off again on June 24 and July 8 from 6-8:30 p.m. for this free summertime tradition on the Shore. You won’t want to miss this year’s line-up:

Saturday, June 24: U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters

The Navy’s official chorus performs pieces ranging from Broadway tunes to sea chanteys and everything in between.

Saturday, July 8: The XPD’s

A D.C. area favorite, the XPD’s groove to Motown, R&B, and funk tunes that get people dancing.

Now in its fifth year, the Clean Water Concert Series has gotten off to a fantastic start. People from around the Shore came out on June 3 to enjoy the first show! The Spanish and Portuguese songs of Cantaré, a Latin American group from Washington, D.C., drew in people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. An estimated 1,500 attendees danced, enjoyed the music from a comfortable lawn chair, or caught the up-beat melodies while visiting the exhibitor tables.

More than a dozen community organizations staffed the family-friendly exhibits to educate people about the environment, and to celebrate the progress being made toward clean and healthy waterways on the Shore. Each organization offered an interactive and family-friendly activity that had something for everyone. Side-walk chalk drawings of Chesapeake Bay critters and drips of delicious Nice Farms Creamery ice cream covered the street by the end of the night.

All concerts are free and open to the public. The wide variety of environmental and community exhibits staffed by experts will be on display for children and adults to enjoy. CBF and the Avalon Foundation are pleased to host this opportunity to learn more about the Bay and how you can be a part of the movement to restore it.

The concert series promotes community awareness about the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, a multi-state, science-based plan to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams.

Visit cbf.org to learn more.

Op-Ed: Chesapeake Bay Foundation Says Teamwork is Needed

“We are stronger together than alone.” It’s an idea that can benefit many people and situations – even those who serve us in government.

In today’s political climate, it’s hard to imagine government officials standing together in unity on much of anything.

Yet just this week representatives of six local jurisdictions on Maryland’s Eastern Shore signed off on a proposal to work collaboratively to control polluted runoff – one of the few sources of Bay pollution that’s increasing.

The collaborative comes out of the Healthy Waters Round Table – a network of county and town officials on the Shore that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and partners helped launch in 2015. The network helps participating communities share resources to keep pollution out of local rivers and streams.

County and town collaboration is a win-win idea. Under the Clean Water Blueprint, Maryland’s local governments are partners in the multi-state commitment to get projects in place by 2025 that will collectively meet water quality standards for the Bay. The problem is that most rural communities like those on the Shore have limited resources at their disposal to contribute to the effort.

Leaders of some jurisdictions are charging new fees to help fund pollution control. Salisbury, for example, assesses homeowners about $20 per year to pay for street sweeping, new plants and trees, and other practices that filter and treat runoff near its source.

But even with this extra effort, Salisbury finds it difficult to get the necessary work done to protect local water quality. That’s why it recently joined Cambridge, Easton, Oxford, Queen Anne’s and Talbot in the new partnership to try share resources. (Round Table partners including Caroline, Cecil, Chestertown and Kent declined to participate.)

The time and effort it takes to bring a municipal or county pollution control project from conception to completion is not insignificant. Scoping out projects, ushering them through design and approval, and managing construction, can sometimes slow projects almost to a halt.

With CBF’s help, county and town partners agreed to work collectively to try to get through this bottleneck. For instance, localities this week partnered on a grant application to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to bring in new technical support staff and funding that can speed up project delivery.

If the proposal is approved, a “Regional Service Provider” will be hired who helps locals plan, prioritize and invest grant dollars in high-value projects. The process also will ensure that pollution reduction efforts get results, and that local governments get credit.

The Hogan Administration likes the idea. State agencies under the Governor’s purview have pledged resources of their own that together with cash contributions from participating local governments will provide some significant horsepower to get work done. If awarded, the three-year initiative would begin as soon as this August.

On the Shore, limited resources are a major impediment to county and town progress on controlling polluted runoff. The new collaborative may be just what’s needed here to get communities what they need to help them do their share to finish the job of restoring the Bay to health.

by Alan Girard

Alan Girard is the director of the Eastern Shore Office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

CBF View: Legislation Passes to Prevent Harvesting on Oyster Sanctuaries until Science Complete by Tom Zolper

Harvesting on oyster sanctuaries won’t be allowed, at least for the time being, after the Maryland General Assembly reaffirmed that it wants to proceed with caution when it comes to the state’s famous bivalve.

A bill, HB 924, approved overwhelmingly in both houses, reiterated that the state wait for a scientific assessment of the oyster stock in Maryland waters before contemplating any major changes in oyster management. Governor Hogan took no action on the bill, so it became law April 6.

The legislature approved the stock assessment a year ago. But in the meantime, the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC), with support from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), had begun to consider a plan to harvest oysters on nearly 1,000 acres of oyster sanctuaries.

Sanctuaries are protected areas where oysters can’t be harvested. That protection allows the reefs to grow vertically out of the silt, to filter polluted water, and to create habitat for fish. Sanctuaries make up about a quarter of the oyster reefs in Maryland. The remaining three-quarters are open to harvest.

Scientists on the OAC, as well as 30 environmental groups, had repeatedly cautioned DNR and oyster industry representatives on the OAC that it was premature to consider opening sanctuaries to harvest without the scientific stock assessment, set to be completed at the end of next year.

Even current scientific information provides no justification for opening sanctuaries. A study by DNR in July found biomass had increased on sanctuaries generally. Oysters were growing, thanks to the protection. DNR cautioned in that report that the healthiest sanctuaries should be left alone.

Yet a proposal presented in February by DNR recommended that several of those healthy sanctuaries be “declassified” and opened for occasional harvest, as well as several other, slightly less healthy sanctuaries.

The passage of HB 924 indicated the legislature’s desire to continue a more precautionary approach than DNR and the OAC were pursuing.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) supported HB 924. With the oyster population at such precarious levels in the Bay, it makes sense to consider a sustainable oyster management harvest plan. The stock assessment will provide the science for that plan. All other fisheries have similar plans, but none has ever been developed for oysters.

Some watermen and others have blamed CBF for acting in “bad faith” by supporting HB 924. They say the bill was used as a tool to disrupt an otherwise collaborative OAC process. But we aren’t the bad guy here.

We agree that too many hours in OAC meetings were wasted developing a proposal to harvest on sanctuaries. We should never have started down that path—before scientists finish a stock assessment. The OAC could have looked into many other aspects of state oyster policy: aquaculture, harvesting in general, poaching, etc. We encouraged the OAC to look into a pilot program of rotational harvesting in the area of the Bay where harvesting already is permitted—but not on sanctuaries. Once the talks headed down the road of harvesting on sanctuaries, a process DNR Secretary Belton abetted, a clash was inevitable.

We also disagree that environmentalists had in any way agreed to harvesting on sanctuaries, only to renege later. Thirty environmental groups submitted a letter to OAC and DNR in December underscoring the need to leave sanctuaries alone, absent sufficient scientific information. CBF also presented a bipartisan poll showing that about 90 percent of Marylanders, across party lines, share those sentiments about sanctuaries.

Despite all this resistance, Belton asked county oyster committees for their proposals for how harvesting on sanctuaries could happen. Then, the secretary asked the environmental groups if they had any proposals for changing the sanctuaries.

Needless to say, that’s like asking someone who doesn’t like spinach to propose how he’d like to eat it. CBF kept our lips pursed. So did scientists on the OAC, and other environmental groups.

A few community groups stepped up with proposals for small expansions of oyster reefs that their volunteers had been planting with baby oysters over the years. They wanted official ‘sanctuary’ designation for those small reefs.

But no environmental groups expressed support for harvesting on sanctuaries. There never was consensus for this idea on the OAC. The idea came from watermen, seafood industry representatives, and legislators on the panel (all of whom generally strongly support watermen on policy issues).

In the end, CBF and other groups supported HB 924 because they weren’t being heard at the OAC, and by DNR.

That support wasn’t meant to disrupt. Just the opposite. It was meant to prevent a disruption of the state’s cautious, science-based approach to oyster management.
Tom Zolper is the Assistant Media Director at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Cambridge Alert – Yard Make-over at No Cost by CBF’s Alan Girard

Residents of Cambridge, this spring you can win an unusual prize: a yard make-over at no cost. And in the process you can help clean up the waters around the city, and the Chesapeake Bay. Oh, and everybody gets a free ‘rain barrel.’

The whole idea is the brainchild of the Cambridge Clean Water Advisory Committee. The group wants to encourage practical, low-cost activities that can improve water quality in the city.

The process is simple. Interested residents must first attend a workshop that’s happening at the Dorchester County Public Library in Cambridge, 5:30 – 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, March 22. You will receive information about what possible changes could be made in your yard that treat polluted runoff.

For instance, “rain gardens” are a type of beautiful garden that also soaks up rain running off your property. This is helpful because this runoff often contains pollution from the air or the landscape. The pollution usually ends up in local creeks. You won’t make any commitments at the workshops, just learn about possibilities for a make-over.

If you’re still interested, next you will receive a free visit after the workshop from a professional landscaper who will look at your yard, talk to you, and come up with ideas such as rain gardens, native plants, pavement removal and other possible modifications best suited for your yard.

You’ll pay nothing for the make-over if you are selected. Only five properties will be chosen in the first year of the two-year program. In the second year, financial support drops from 100 percent to 90 percent as a way to encourage early participation.

Both homeowners and renters are eligible to enroll. Those of limited means are particularly encouraged to step forward as the project is intended, in part, to respond to needs in underserved communities. A community survey accessible online here will further help reveal how much people know about water quality and ways to improve it. All survey respondents are eligible to enter to win a $40 Jimmie & Sooks Raw Bar and Grill gift card.

Pre-registration is required to attend the workshop on March 22nd. Each workshop participant will receive a free rain barrel and instructions on how to install it. For more information and to register, contact Hilary Gibson at 410-543-1999 or hgibson@cbf.org.

Fertilizers, soil, oil, grease and other contaminants run off private property when it rains. Until now, cities such as Cambridge have been left with the responsibility to deal with this problem. It’s difficult and expensive, especially to manage runoff from private property.

The work in Cambridge seeks to treat runoff before it becomes the city’s responsibility. Recognizing the burden of treating runoff once it reaches the city’s drainage system, the Cambridge Clean Water Advisory Committee of private and public partners stepped in to try to demonstrate how runoff volumes and contaminants can be reduced before that point. Funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation was awarded to pilot a program that offers homeowners and renters incentives to install native plantings, swales and other practices that naturally filter runoff on private property – minimizing runoff volumes and pollutants for the city to handle later.

Alan Girard is the director of the Maryland Eastern Shore Office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

CBF Issues Statement On OMB Proposal to Slash Bay Restoration Funding

Following reports in the Washington Post today of the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) proposal to cut Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funding in support of the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint, Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker issued the following statement.

The OMB proposal reduces funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program from about $73 million annually to $5 million in the next fiscal year. EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program coordinates science, research, and modeling to implement the Blueprint, as well as grants to state and local governments and others to help reduce pollution.

“Reducing funding for the successful Chesapeake Bay clean-up, begun by Ronald Reagan, seems inconsistent with the President’s remarks about clean water.

“The proposed reduction in federal investment in Chesapeake Bay would reverse restoration successes. The EPA role in the cleanup of the Chesapeake is nothing less than fundamental. It’s not just important, it’s critical.

“Restoration efforts are working. There is measurable progress in restoring local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. Crabs and oysters are rebounding, the dead zone is getting smaller, and Bay grasses are at their highest levels in decades. The progress is the result of the federal and state partnership implementing the Clean Water Blueprint, as well as the work of citizens, business, farmers, and local governments all doing their share to reduce pollution.

“The Blueprint has bipartisan support, as was recently demonstrated in a letter led by Chesapeake Bay Task Force co-chairs Congressmen Bobby Scott, Rob Wittman, Andy Harris, and John Sarbanes from seventeen members of Congress to President Trump, calling on his administration to continue full funding of Bay restoration efforts.

“We urge all local partners—residents, businesses, watershed groups, universities, and state and local governments—to let their voices be heard.

“The OMB proposal is only the first step in developing EPA’s budget, and we hope that Administrator Pruitt will want to take advantage of a program that’s successful, bi-partisan, and non-controversial. It works.”

CBF Poll: MD Voters Overwhelmingly Support Oyster Sanctuaries

An overwhelming majority of Maryland voters across party lines support maintaining existing Chesapeake Bay oyster sanctuaries, according to a poll by a bipartisan research team commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF).

“The state is considering a proposal to open up a net of nearly 1,000 acres of oyster sanctuaries to harvest. ‘Don’t you dare!’ Marylanders are saying loud and clear,” said Alison Prost, Maryland Executive Director of CBF. “Voters understand the value of leaving a quarter of the state’s reefs closed to harvest, so oysters can recover from decades of overharvest and disease.”

The results found 88 percent of Marylanders support existing sanctuaries, two-thirds of those voters “strongly.” The findings suggest strong support across party lines, with 91 percent of registered Democrats, 89 percent of Independents, and 82 percent of Republicans in support.

Public support for the sanctuaries actually increased after the survey summarized the oyster industry’s reasons for wanting the expanded harvesting. Industry representatives have argued at Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) meetings that the state unfairly increased the sanctuaries in 2010. They say too much public money has been spent on restoring the oyster population of the Bay.

Understanding the industry’s position, voters were even more in favor of keeping sanctuaries intact, with support rising from 88 percent to 91 percent.

The poll found voters understand the value of undisturbed oyster beds. Fully 92 percent said that the ability of those sanctuary reefs to filter pollutants from the water, and to improve water quality was “extremely” or “very important” to them. And 88 percent of voters said they value the protection and habitat for fish, crabs, and other plants and wildlife that protected reefs provide.

The poll results come a little over a week after the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) compiled proposals submitted to date and presented a “strawman” proposal to the OAC to let the oyster industry harvest on 977 acres net of oyster reefs which currently are off-limits to harvesting. That proposal will be discussed by OAC members, and possibly adopted, changed or rejected in coming weeks.

A bill (HB 924) being considered in the Maryland General Assembly would require the state to hold off on any alterations of the oyster sanctuaries until a scientific assessment of the oyster stock is completed in 2018. That legislation will be heard today, Feb. 24, at 1 p.m. in the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

Sanctuaries are Maryland’s insurance policy for the future oyster population. By protecting a small portion of the state’s oyster bottom from harvesting, oysters on the sanctuaries can grow and reproduce. A DNR study published in July, 2016 found oysters thriving in much of the sanctuary system, but found scarce numbers of oysters elsewhere.

Three-quarters of Maryland’s oyster reefs are open to harvesting, under current regulations. The proposal before the OAC would shrink the sanctuary areas by 11 percent, and enlarge the harvest areas.

The poll was conducted by a bipartisan collaboration between Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, a Democratic polling firm, and Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm.

“Marylanders understand we must take the long view managing our oysters. That’s why it’s vitally important we wait for scientists to finish their stock assessment. We wouldn’t spend money without knowing what’s in our bank account. We need science-based management for Maryland oysters just like we have for every other fishery. We must wait to see how many oysters are at the bottom of the Bay before we randomly increase the harvest,” Prost said.

Op-Ed: The View of an Oyster Sanctuary from CBF’s Perspective by Tom Zolper

The fate of Maryland’s oyster population is being worked out in a church basement in Annapolis.

That’s where the state Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) meets the second Monday of each month. This is the group appointed by Governor Hogan to review the state’s oyster management system, and to recommend changes, if necessary.  

This past Monday night was perhaps the most important OAC meet so far. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) presented a proposal to open up about 970 acres of ‘sanctuary’ oyster reefs to harvest.

As I have on several occasions, I sat in on the OAC meeting. But it was difficult to sit still.

The makeup of the OAC is controversial, filled mostly with watermen and those who sympathize with their views. The direction the OAC is taking also is controversial.  

The controversy brings out the crowds. The OAC meetings used to take place in a meeting room at the DNR headquarters right next door. So many people began showing up, DNR had to move the meeting to the fellowship hall of the Calvary United Methodist Church on Rowe Blvd. Now even that room is often jammed.

Watermen feel the state has cheated them. Under prior governor Martin O’Malley the state increased the acres of productive oyster reefs set aside as sanctuaries—those areas that can’t be harvested. O’Malley himself was guided by scientists’ warnings that so few oysters remained in the Chesapeake that the status quo was no longer viable.

With input from everyone involved with oysters, the harvest industry included, O’Malley increased from nine percent to 24 percent the portion of oyster bars protected as sanctuaries. Three-quarters of reefs were to remain open to harvest. He also relaxed decades-old regulations to give watermen more opportunities to farm oysters rather than harvest them in the wild. In Virginia oyster aquaculture is a booming business, but at the time of O’Malley’s new plan it was negligible in Maryland. The idea was to boost watermen’s earnings, and simultaneously to take out an insurance plan for the future of oysters in the Bay.

There’s no doubt short term watermen took a hit. They had fewer places to harvest, although fortunately for them Mother Nature provided strong oyster reproduction for several years, resulting in strong harvests.  

Scientists and groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) where I work sympathized with the watermen. But we believed someone had to take the long view before oysters were wiped out completely.

CBF, along with a host of western and Eastern Shore groups such as the Midshore River Conservancy, St. Mary’s River Watershed Association, and others, believe the OAC proposal to shrink the sanctuaries is ill-advised. At a minimum, the state must wait till DNR finishes a stock assessment of the oyster population. You wouldn’t start spending more money without knowing what’s in your bank account. That’s exactly what the proposal would do.

It would open up 1277 acres of sanctuaries for harvest in the following rivers and Bay segments: Upper Chester, Miles, Wye, Upper Choptank, Hooper Strait, Upper Patuxent and Tangier Sound. It would expand sanctuaries by 300 acres in: Mill Hill/Prospect Bay, Eastern Bay, Lower Choptank and Nanticoke River. The net result would be 977 fewer acres in sanctuaries, an 11 percent reduction in those sanctuary acres.

It’s only 11 percent, you might say. But it’s 11 percent of the most productive, healthy sanctuary bars in the Bay. And it is giving away these protected areas before we have any idea the true size of the oyster population. That’s not scientific. That’s not sound judgment. Harvesting oysters on those 977 previously protected acres could do irreversible damage to the fragile population.

A bill in the Maryland General Assembly, HB 924, would freeze any alterations in the sanctuaries till after the stock assessment. Oyster harvesting is the only major fishery in Maryland that isn’t managed with a science-based plan. It pays us to wait till we have the science before we implement a major change such as OAC is considering.

The bill will be heard this Friday, Feb. 24, at 1 pm in the House Environment and Transportation Committee. We urge people concerned about the proposal to shrink sanctuaries to make their voice heard.

Tom Zolper is Assistant Director of Media Relations at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. For more information about CBF please go here.

 

  

Backing Up the Blueprint By Alix Murdoch

Ever since Congress established the Chesapeake Bay Program more than three decades ago in 1983, watershed states have worked in collaboration with federal partners to restore this national treasure, including its rivers and streams.

Although their efforts have progressed in fits and starts, the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, which includes both pollution-reduction commitments from states and critical federal oversight, rightly gives us confidence that the region will accelerate pollution reduction and significantly improve water quality in local rivers and streams and the Bay by 2025.

Already, the implementation of the Blueprint has reduced pollution and improved the Bay’s health. Report card after report card confirms this. And evidence in the water is compelling: Over time, dead zones have been shrinking, oysters are making a comeback and the Bay’s underwater grasses are covering more acres than they have in 35 years.

With so much progress and so much hope, now is the time to build on our success–to increase our efforts, not relax them. That’s why it was so discouraging this summer to see the House of Representatives add to its interior appropriations bill (H.R. 5538) a provision to bar funding for EPA “backstops,” a unique element of the Blueprint that gives each state certainty that the others will fulfill their commitments.

The provision, introduced on the House floor by Congressman Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, would undermine the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. It would also undermine the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement and the will of the Bay states, all of which unanimously and voluntarily signed the 2014 agreement understanding that it includes these backstops.

There’s no denying that progress under the Blueprint requires slow, hard work. But with the Bay states on board and the federal agencies committed to seeing the Blueprint through, the Goodlatte amendment simply makes no sense.

And, increasingly, members of Congress agree. In his statement to House colleagues urging them to reject the Goodlatte amendment, Congressman Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, summed up the risks associated with a weakened Blueprint: “If Pennsylvania doesn’t meet its responsibilities, Maryland sees the consequences at the Conowingo Dam. If Maryland doesn’t do its job, it jeopardizes Virginia’s oyster population. We have a collaborative process in place, and our states have made significant investments and important progress.”

Although the Goodlatte provision to bar backstop funding was approved by the House, it was not supported by a straight party line vote. In an extremely noteworthy show of unity, a bipartisan group of 20 members from the Bay Watershed voted against it, including the entire Maryland delegation. Several Republicans from outside our watershed also voted against the provision. Many of these representatives were from states that are also dealing with difficult water quality issues, including Ohio and Florida.

Congress can still choose to exclude this harmful provision and fully fund the Blueprint in the final appropriations bill. But they need to know that the Blueprint is important to their constituents. As the Senate negotiates the appropriations bills of fiscal 2017, it will be incumbent upon all of us to urge our elected officials to maintain the region’s long-standing commitment to the extraordinary federal-state collaboration that sustains the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. We must encourage them to ensure full federal funding for this historic effort, with no limitations on the EPA’s use of funds in the Bay region.

Alix Murdoch is based in Washington, D.C., where she serves as federal policy director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Distributed by the Bay Journal News Service