Oyster sanctuary, study bill moves through legislature
ANNAPOLIS — Contention surrounds a bill in the legislature that would restrict the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from changing boundaries of an oyster sanctuary until a study on Maryland’s oyster population is released.
The state’s Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC), which makes recommendations on oyster management to DNR, in February released a recommendation that identifies five areas currently under sanctuary status and partly opens them to a rotational harvest schedule.
The bill, House Bill 924, stops that recommendation from taking place until at least December 2018, when a study and stock assessment on Maryland’s oyster population is due to be released.
Opponents of the bill say it subverts the work of the OAC, which is made up of scientists, environmentalists, industry representatives, lawmakers and citizens and is said to be balanced in interests.
Proponents of the bill say they don’t want to see harm come to sanctuaries by means of harvest, and that the state should wait for the stock assessment report to be released so regulators can have as much information before them on which to base a decision.
Kelley Cox, co-chairman of the OAC and executive director of the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center on Tilghman Island, said work on the OAC takes some give and take. While there are arguments at the meetings, the commission is finally starting to go in a positive direction and come to consensus on issues, she said.
“We know that it takes give and take and we’re finally getting there, and I’m a little dismayed that there are people who aren’t patient enough to wait for us to do our work and there’s people who need to dictate what needs to be done,” Cox said. “Some of these areas could actually be brought back really well with rotational harvest and investment in them from the industry and other stakeholders.”
Taking a look at the state’s sanctuary boundaries was one of the OAC’s charges when reinstated in July 2016, said Allison Cordell, a legislative officer with DNR, which is opposed to the bill.
Cordell and others against the bill in a hearing before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on Thursday, March 23, questioned what point there would be for the OAC to meet on the issue, should the legislature decide to interject itself in an issue that the commission has worked hard over long meetings to come to a consensus on.
“HB 924 is an attempt to dictate one view point, instead of allowing the process continue toward consensus building,” Cordell said. “The OAC is discussing ways to get more oysters in the Bay, not how to take more out.”
DNR Shellfish Manager Chris Judy said there are currently 51 sanctuary areas in Maryland waters. The rotational harvest proposal is a limited approach, he said, focusing on small parts of five sanctuary areas that haven’t seen much investment and are “largely underpopulated now” with “low levels of reproduction.”
“Theses proposed areas are underpopulated, not reproducing very well; they need help,” Judy said. “So the idea is to plant seed oyster in them, boost the population, not harvest all of them, and the end point in the design ... would be an elevated oyster population in these depressed areas.”