Saturday, February 14, 2009

Task force recommends halting Maryland oyster harvest

Report calls for helping watermen learn to cultivate bivalves

Workers cull through oysters that were grown on floating nets. (Baltimore Sun file photo by Glenn Fawcett / December 19, 2007)

By Timothy B. Wheeler

A high-profile state task force is recommending that Maryland stop spending millions of dollars to plant oysters in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries only to let watermen harvest them.

The 21-member Oyster Advisory Commission says the state should stop paying for such "managed reserves" over the next several years and instead help watermen learn how to raise oysters at their own expense for sale to restaurants and seafood businesses.

"I just don't think the public is going to be willing to pay very much longer for a couple hundred guys to make some of their income harvesting oysters," William Eichbaum, chairman of the advisory commission and a vice president of the World Wildlife Fund, said yesterday.

The commission's report, to be presented in Annapolis next week, calls for Maryland to expand its efforts to rebuild the bay's disease-ravaged oyster population by restoring lost reefs and planting millions of bushels of hatchery-reared oysters. But the panel says oysters planted on the bottom at public expense ought to be left there to help clean up the bay and to improve chances that some will develop resistance to disease.

State Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin welcomed the commission's report Thursday, calling it "a great framework ... to direct a new course for oyster restoration." He said the O'Malley administration already is acting on some of the recommendations and would study the others.

Oysters filter nutrients and sediment from the water - the pollutants most responsible for the bay's degraded condition. In the late 1800s, when commercial harvests topped 10 million bushels a year, the bivalves were so abundant that scientists estimate they could filter all the bay's water in less than a week.

But overfishing, loss of reefs on which oysters can grow and a pair of diseases, MSX and Dermo, have reduced the bay's population to just 1 percent of historic levels. Harvests in recent years have fallen below 100,000 bushels, despite a replanting effort that has put hundreds of millions of hatchery-reared oysters in the bay.

Task force recommends halting the harvest of state's oyster reserves

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