Letter to the Editor: Oysters and Talbot County Council

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An important piece of legislation is currently being considered by the Maryland General Assembly that would protect our oyster sanctuaries “in perpetuity,” giving actual meaning to the word “sanctuary,” and allowing oyster aquaculture to occur within and as a complement to protected wild oysters inside these sanctuaries. The bill is labeled House Bill 298 and Senate Bill 448 “OYSTERS-TRIBUTARY-SCALE SANCTUARIES-PROTECTION AND RESTORATION.

ShoreRivers has been working for years to advance measures to restore and protect our oyster populations. On behalf of our several thousand members, we strongly support this bill. Numerous other organizations dedicated to Chesapeake Bay restoration support this bill. ShoreRivers’ staff professionals, in fact, have been testifying in Annapolis in support of this bill. It came as quite a surprise to learn, not from our county council, but from others while testifying in Annapolis, that the Talbot County Council is trying to undermine these efforts and has written a letter to state legislators formally opposing this bill.

In the letter, the council made statements such as, “we are very concerned that the state’s focus on aquaculture in sanctuaries is being done at the expense of maintaining a viable public oyster fishery.” And, “sanctuaries have not yet proven themselves as a better restoration option than a well-managed oyster fishery.” Going further, the council wrote, “A properly maintained fishery can keep the oyster stock healthier and more vital than an unattended and unmanaged sanctuary.”

At ShoreRivers, we have been studying this issue for years. We are science-based. We find these quoted statements surprisingly uninformed, and, in our view, contrary to the science, to the welfare of our rivers, and to the views of many county residents. Moreover, to our knowledge, there was no opportunity for public input in the council’s decision to attack this bill, no public advance notice that the council was considering this issue, and no public vote by the council.

Regarding the council’s letter, first, there is no scientific basis to call our oyster fishery “well-managed, properly maintained, or viable.” It is well known that our current oyster population is less than 1% of historic levels. Since 1999, our population of adult oysters has diminished by half. Whether our state should allow the harvest of wild oysters at all is a reasonable question. No other fishery in the world that has been so decimated even permits a wild harvest. In the late 1980s, Maryland imposed a five-year moratorium on striped bass fishing, and in the 1990s, goose hunting was suspended to protect populations that were nowhere near as decimated as our oyster population.

Second, these sanctuaries are, in fact, working. Millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent by state and federal agencies, and countless efforts have been made by numerous private nonprofit organizations and concerned citizens to create and populate these sanctuaries. Two of these key sanctuaries benefit Talbot County directly, one in Harris Creek and one in the Tred Avon River. Data from Harris Creek, the first of these to be seeded, show that oyster reefs within the sanctuaries are meeting the success metrics for oyster density and biomass. A recent study by The Nature Conservancy found that restored reefs in Harris Creek are able to filter all the volume of water in the creek in less than 10 days during the summer months, and they have the potential to remove one million pounds of nitrogen over a decade. The sanctuaries have exceeded all expectations. The benefits of similar type sanctuaries to restore decimated fishery populations has been proven to be effective countless times around country and the world.

Third, to say that large tributary-scale oyster restoration will “seriously or fatally injure the industry, causing loses in both jobs and revenue” is shortsighted. A study released earlier this month by Morgan State University found that “fully mature oyster reefs in the Chesapeake would yield a 150 percent increase to blue crab harvest and an estimated $10-million increase in annual fishing revenues in the region.” Hotels, marinas, bait shops, and other marine industries in the county would surely support the added benefits from a boost in recreational fishing and tourism brought by having restored oyster reefs.

The Talbot County Council represents more than one constituent group. ShoreRivers has thousands of members, and we were never given the opportunity to have our views considered by our council. To our knowledge, other constituent groups, such as our growing aquaculture industry, were not given such an opportunity. The public at large was not given this opportunity. We find it objectionable that our council would seek to undermine this important State bill without providing its entire constituent base with the opportunity to be heard. And that it would seek to undermine it based on uninformed and misleading statements.

Robust oyster populations are essential in restoring and protecting our rivers and bay. We hope the members of our community who support real “sanctuaries” will let their views be known both to our state representatives and to the Talbot County Council.

Matt Pluta
Choptank Riverkeeper
ShoreRivers

Letters to Editor

  1. Steve Hamblin says:

    Bravo, Matt Pluta! Wonderful letter.

    The Council ought to be ashamed- operating in secret to do the bidding of a tiny minority of its citizens.

  2. Well mr. Pluta here you go again. You’re trying to make it sound as if the County Council standing up for the rights of hard-working Waterman the county is a bad thing. I have had the pleasure I’m sitting behind you, and listening to you and your chummies trying to convince the legislators in Annapolis that your way is the only way to save the oysters. You said you’ve been working for years on this oyster issue. Well guess what son, I’ve been working on this issue along with many Waterman since before you were born. Now that your organization’s have squandered money for many misinform people and have aligned yourself with major ENGO’s that are buying and paying for the legislators in Annapolis, you think you have the only answer. Your approach to the oyster sanctuaries, almost has a socialist ring to it. Don’t forget in this state, we have a constitution that ensures fair and equal treatment to all citizens. To allow aquaculture as the only group allowed into a sanctuary is in fact arbitrary and capricious and unconstitutional. Something you seem to know nothing about!! Every time the Waterman of Talbot County has stepped up to the plate and tried to protect their industry and find fault with what’s going on in our Waters of Talbot County, you scream bloody murder. You are not the only one that works with people in this County. The ladies and gentlemen I’m told the county that we work with contribute financially to the county and local businesses. Something that you do not do. All you are doing is successfully politicizing a natural resource. Remember this Mr pluta, ” WHEN YOU POLITICIZE A NATURAL RESOURCE, IT LEADS TO THE DEMISE OF THAT NATURAL RESOURCE, AND THE INDUSTRY BASED ON THAT NATURAL RESOURCE “. This is exactly what you are accomplishing by your misleading of the public with your agenda. If we take the politics out of it son, you and all your fellow ENGO’s will fall flat on your face.

  3. Mike McConnel says:

    The letter from Shorekeepers states a factual basis for supporting pending legislation that would protect Talbot County’s oyster sanctuaries “in perpetuity.” Mr. Pack, President of the Talbot County Council, had previously sent a letter to the Maryland legislature opposing these bills. Mr. Pack’s letter said he was writing on behalf of a majority of Council Commissioners yet, as Shorekeepers notes, neither it nor any other Talbot constituent had any opportunity to present their views before Mr. Pack wrote.

    Mr. Pack signed his letter as President of the Council even though the Council had evidently never met to consider the issue! If true, this action by him as President was unauthorized and in violation of the Talbot County Charter.. Mr. Pack has been formally asked to explain or withdraw his letter by citizen groups with copies of this request sent to all of the other Commissioners. The request to Mr. Pack has been pending for more than a week and to my knowledge continues to be ignored.

  4. We act like we are the only place in the world where oysters grow and are harvested. What is Virginia doing? I have been told that they are very successful. There are successful oyster farms on the Damariscotta River in Maine. Duxbury Mass. has a large oyster farming operation.
    Why do we not look and see what others are doing.
    The MD watermen have a stake in this debate. So do the rest of us.

  5. John Schreiner says:

    One reason there’s a sparse crop of oysters these days is a short term outlook. I support science based studies that promote long term supply by cultivating sanctuaries. We need to look at restoration that give the bay a chance to grow, not diminish, oyster productivity over the long (3-6yrs) term.

  6. Jeff Harrison says:

    First, I want to thank the Talbot County Council for writing their letter of support. It is a comfort to know that in time of need our council will take action.When 50% of Talbot County’s productive oyster bars were taken to 3 major sanctuaries our county experienced a great loss economically, socially, and, yes, environmentally. As president of Talbot Watermen’s Association, member of Oyster Advisory Commission, member of Oyster Futures, and Chairperson of the Talbot County Oyster Shell Committee, I would like to share some of the scientific data that shows that Harris Creek Sanctuary is not performing as well as Public Oyster Harvest Areas and why sanctuaries success is still unproven.

    Since I live on Tilghman, I have watched every phase of the reef construction in Harris Creek including many years of the planting of Spat on Shell (SOS) until its supposed completion in 2016. I say supposed because, in 2017, I started to see more plantings of SOS, and a total of 31 of the 64 reefs were replanted. At an Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) meeting, I brought up the question of why a project that was announced to be completed the year before would need such extensive reseeding. The response was that the restoration plan allowed for additional plantings if bar did not meet certain metrics. How convenient that the plan was written with safeguards so that it would not fail. I thought that once completed the reef would sustain themselves through natural reproduction and, according to the computer model, this spat would spread outside of Harris Creek to harvest areas. This is not occurring as evidence from the current 2017 Fall Survey (a survey of oyster bars done around the state for the past 60 years by the DNR). In Harris Creek, the number of spat per bushel is 55, slightly above the 33 year average 40.3, but just outside of Harris creek the number per bushel is only 13 which is a lot lower than that bars 33 year average of 67.2. Also noted is that both spat counts are well below that of Broad Creek which is 205 per bushel, almost double the 33 year average of 118.1, and let’s remember this is a creek that we harvest and have not planted over 2 billion SOS and spent 32 million dollar in taxpayer’s money.

    As for the next computer model mentioned by Mr. Pluta that shows the filtering capacity of Harris Creek and the removal of nitrogen, where is the data? I know ShoreRivers does water testing in Harris Creek so, I looked on ShoreRivers website and clicked on the River Watch icon. Here I found data concerning nitrogen removal; the data shows Harris Creek was actually going backwards with nitrogen levels rising from 2010 to 2014, with overall numbers increasing. Broad Creek, a public harvest area, during those same years was declining in nitrogen levels. Just recently, the numbers for Harris Creek are looking better and comparable to low levels of nitrogen in Broad Creek.

    And finally, the Morgan State study (I actually participated in as a member of the Oyster Futures project) about increase in crab population, what Mr. Pluta and others have failed to report is this study concluded the overall increase to the oyster population would not be significant. So, my question to you, after reviewing all this data which proves that sanctuaries are not working, why would we make them permanent?

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