The Bay needs oyster sanctuaries, and the sanctuaries need our help to protect them from efforts to reduce their size and keep them free from harvest. Oyster sanctuaries are our best hope to restore the health and productivity of the Chesapeake Bay. On February 13, the Oyster Advisory Commission considered proposed changes to sanctuary management that would reduce the size of oyster sanctuaries by 11 percent and open up nearly 1,000 acres of the remaining sanctuaries to rotational harvesting. If adopted, the proposal would be a major setback to Chesapeake restoration efforts and should be rejected.
The Oyster Advisory Commission was established in 2007 to advise the Department of Natural Resources on strategies for rebuilding and managing oyster populations. The current oyster management plan was adopted in 2010 to meet these objectives, including the establishment of several sanctuary areas. Of the 36,000 acres of productive oyster bottom remaining in Maryland’s portion of the Bay, 24 percent (approximately 9,000 acres) was placed in sanctuary, with the remaining 76 percent left open as public shellfish fishery areas.
It was clear during Monday’s meeting that there is no scientific justification for a reduction in the size of oyster sanctuaries. The draft 2016 status report indicates that all current objectives for sanctuary management are being met, which means there is no scientific reason to reduce sanctuaries or damage them with rotational harvesting.
Sanctuaries need to be kept free from harvest to allow oysters to continue to reproduce in a manner to establish oyster reefs. Oysters have the incredible ability to filter water – up to 50 gallons of water per day for each oyster. Furthermore, when left to their own devices oysters have the ability to build vertical reefs in the Bay that create critical habitat for other aquatic species. These reefs also help mix Bay water as a result of tidal action, reducing “dead zones” that typically occur during warm weather months. Rotational harvesting would break up the reefs and destroys these vertical structures, sacrificing long-term efforts to restore the Bay for a small and temporary increase in harvest levels.
There is hope. Recently, State Representative James Gilchrist introduced House Bill 924 to prohibit any changes to oyster sanctuaries until the Department of Natural Resources developed a science-based plan that would justify any changes. Under this bill, the Department would consult with University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science to carry out peer-reviewed science that would guide future action, with a final report due December 2018. This approach would ensure that science, and not short term political interests, would govern management of the oyster sanctuaries. Oysters belong in the Bay, and the Bay belongs to all of us.