Two Sides to the Oyster

Governor O’Malley of Maryland has taken two bold steps this month to re-invigorate the beleaguered Maryland oyster industry. The first move–the expansion of oyster sanctuaries–benefits everyone and especially the health of the Bay. However, the funding of an expansion in oyster farming may only benefit the few. Watermen have long warned of this: the potential threat of large seafood companies leasing the bottom of the Chesapeake, as they have done in Delaware Bay. Even if aquaculture leases are issued initially to mom-and-pop outfits or to some individual watermen, these leases could potentially be consolidated, leaving watermen out all together. That is their fear.

 On a broader level, why leave watermen and a public fishery out of the mix? The governor’s proposal promotes aquaculture nearly to the exclusion of a wild fishery. Actually, there is no reason why these two modes of harvest–private and public–can’t be compatible. Some bay bottom–for example, sand bars–are suited to oyster farming but not suited to traditional oyster bars. Likewise, some deepwater oyster beds are not the best place for aquaculture. The 36,000 acres of existing oyster habitat and approx. 7,000 acres of current leased bottom could be divided up equitably. Other areas of “barren” bottom could be rehabilitated with stone, shell, or concrete to propagate oysters for leaseholders. A fair plan, portioning the resource, could be established.

 Watermen have a poor reputation for stewardship of Bay resources. But the problem of overharvesting is not solely on their shoulders. Maryland has mismanaged the oyster fishery, beginning with lax enforcement of harvest regulations. With proper enforcement, a public fishery could thrive right next to private leases, where owners could police themselves.