The new law is the latest round in a years-long tug of war between the Hogan administration and legislators over oyster management. It directs the Department of Natural Resources to work with scientists, mediators and an expanded roster of stakeholders to seek agreement where little has existed to date on how to increase the abundance and sustainability of the Chesapeake Bay’s keystone species.
The bill cleared the House by a vote of 95 to 43. That was a few votes less than it got when originally passed last year but still more than the three-fifths majority needed for a veto override. The Senate quickly followed suit, voting 31-15 to make it law despite the governor’s objections.
Supporters of the measure said it was needed to direct the DNR to revamp the oyster management plan it had adopted last year. Environmentalists and their allies in the General Assembly have complained that the administration has favored watermen’s interests in seeking to open oyster sanctuaries to harvest and is not moving forcefully enough to end the overfishing found in a 2018 scientific assessment.
“It’s time to work together toward the common goal of increasing Maryland’s oyster population to improve the state’s environment and the fishery’s long-term outlook,” said Alison Prost, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland executive director.
The bill requires the DNR to reorganize its Oyster Advisory Commission, then work with it and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science to develop recommendations for maintaining a sustainable harvest and rebuilding the depleted oyster population, estimated to be 1–2% of historic levels. Any recommendations would have to be approved by 75% of the members.
Republican lawmakers who opposed the override contended that the measure wasn’t needed and that it would only delay action and drive a deeper wedge between environmentalists and watermen.
“The department has a plan, or is working on a plan, to get to a sustainable fishery in the next eight to 10 years,” said Sen. Stephen S. Hershey, Jr., who represents the Mid– and Upper Eastern Shore. The new decision-making process the legislation prescribes “has pushed the goalpost back even farther.”
In vetoing the legislation last year, Hogan had used similar language, accusing lawmakers and environmental advocates of making an “end run” on his administration’s efforts to forge “thoughtful and science-based” oyster management policies.
But lawmakers supporting the measure said the oyster management plan the DNR adopted last year doesn’t put enough emphasis on restoring oysters for their ecological value and doesn’t move quickly enough to end overfishing. A scientific stock assessment finished in 2018 found that the stock of harvestable adult oysters in Maryland’s portion of the Bay had declined by half since 1999 and that they were being overharvested in more than half of the public fishery areas.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth, D-Anne Arundel County, said “a new approach was needed” in light of the continuing conflict between environmentalists and watermen. She noted that the legislation awards nearly 60% of the seats on the advisory commission to watermen and other seafood industry representatives.
Elfreth noted that many of her constituents in the Annapolis area have urged her to push for a total moratorium on oyster harvests to rebuild the state’s depleted population. But she said the science doesn’t support that.
“I think this bill presents the right balance,” she said, “and makes sure we have an oyster fishery for generations to come.”
Because the measure sat in limbo for a year, proponents say the timeline it specifies for revisiting the oyster management plan needs to be adjusted. Legislation is to be introduced to do that, as well as remove a provision authorizing the advisory commission to close its meetings to the public.
Anticipating the veto override, DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio had already moved to reconstitute the department’s Oyster Advisory Commission in line with the membership prescribed by the legislation. She also brought in a pair of mediators late last year to begin a new round of discussions among the oft-disputing parties over what they would change in the state’s oyster restoration efforts and in its management of the public fishery.
But Haddaway-Riccio has warned that the measure could tie the DNR’s hands, because it bars the agency from changing the boundaries of the state’s oyster sanctuaries until the commission has revised its oyster management plan. She has indicated it could take two years to complete that process.
After Thursday’s vote, Haddaway-Riccio issued a statement saying that the “real consequences of this vote are delaying our ability to enhance our state-managed oyster sanctuaries and further straining the relationship between the very stakeholders the legislature wants to come to consensus. Both of these things will delay us from reaching our goals on oyster restoration.
“Regardless of this misguided vote,” she added, “we will continue to implement our Oyster Management Plan and remain focused on our goal of a sustainable harvest and population in eight to 10 years.”
By Tim Wheeler