Bill would keep oyster sanctuaries off limits
EASTON — A bill in the state legislature would prevent the Department of Natural Resources from opening any oyster sanctuaries in state waters until the department develops a plan for the scientific management of the state’s oyster population.
The Oyster Advisor y Commission, charged by the state to make recommendations on the oyster population, recently proposed to revise the state’s oyster management plan to establish a rotational harvest system, which would open some areas currently under sanctuary status to harvest.
This legislative session, state lawmakers submitted House Bill 924, which would prevent that from happening until the Department of Natural Resources conducts a stock assessment study and determines if the public oyster fishery is operating within the biological reference points.
According to the bill’s main sponsor, Del. Jim Gilchrist, D-17-Montgomery, the study is under way alongside the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and is scheduled for completion by the end of next year.
The bill passed by a 102-39 margin in the House on Thursday, March 16. It is now on its way to the Senate for consideration.
Watermen have concerns over the legislation. As workers of the water who have struggled to make a living in recent years with diminishing oyster populations, coupled with the establishment of large-scale oyster sanctuaries on the Mid-Shore in 2010, they have lobbied for a rotational harvest schedule in an effort to win back some ground to work.
Last year, a five-year study on the sanctuaries was released, and the study was to give some direction to regulators and legislators as to where to move forward on oyster restoration efforts. Also last year, the state legislature passed a bill calling for a two-year study on the state’s entire oyster stock.
The sanctuar y-related recommendation from the Oyster Advisory Commission, reinstated last year to advise DNR, came in mid-February, although discussion of a rotational harvest were present before then. Shortly before the official release of the recommendation, lawmakers introduced a bill, House Bill 924, in the legislative session that essentially prevents DNR from establishing a rotational harvest system with current sanctuaries and public fisheries until the DNR and UMCES study is released, and science can guide decision-making further.
But some lawmakers, including Del. Johnny Mautz, R-37B-Talbot, and Del. Chris Adams, R-37B-Wicomico, argued what the purpose of the Oyster Advisory Commission is, if House Bill 924 is passed.