Maryland & Virginia legislatures tackle oyster issues with mixed reactions

Oysters got attention from lawmakers this year in both Maryland and Virginia, but the issue sparked bitter debates in Annapolis.

Maryland lawmakers overcame Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto to forbid future commercial harvests from five oyster sanctuaries undergoing restoration. They also passed another bill that at least temporarily bars opening any of the state’s 46 other sanctuaries to harvest. Watermen are urging Hogan to veto it as well.

In Richmond, there was less at stake and more harmony — which may stem from the fact that the Old Dominion’s wild oyster harvests have been increasing, while Maryland’s have been slipping. Virginia lawmakers approved Gov. Ralph Northam’s budget request for $4 million for oyster reef repletion and restoration, one-third more than this year. They also agreed to some of the recommendations of a gubernatorial task force seeking to ease conflicts over aquaculture leases.

The two oyster bills passed by Maryland’s General Assembly are the latest in a tug of war with the Hogan administration over management of the keystone Chesapeake Bay species.

Hogan campaigned in 2014 with a pledge to end what he called his predecessor’s “assault” on watermen. In early 2017, at the urging of watermen worried about declining harvests, his Department of Natural Resources floated a plan to open portions of some sanctuaries for commercial harvest.

The General Assembly reacted by blocking that move until the DNR produced a scientific assessment of the oyster stock. The study, completed last year, found that the state’s population of market-size oysters had declined by half since 1999 and more than half of the areas where commercial harvest is allowed were being overfished.

Those findings prompted the DNR to begin drawing up a new management plan for oysters, which officials said they hoped to have in place before the next commercial oyster season begins on Oct. 1.

But environmentalists, worried that the DNR was still intent on opening sanctuaries, appealed to lawmakers to set some parameters for future management. One bill proposed stronger protection for sanctuaries in the five Bay tributaries that the state has selected for large-scale oyster restoration projects.

As part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Maryland pledged nearly five years ago to restore oyster populations in five Bay tributaries by 2025. Work is essentially complete in Harris Creek and in various stages of construction or planning in the other four: the Tred Avon, Little Choptank, St. Mary’s and Manokin rivers.

The proposed bill barred any changes to the five sanctuaries without approval from the General Assembly, removing direct control from the DNR. Watermen opposed it, contending that the restoration projects — and sanctuaries in general — aren’t helping to restore the oyster population. They have pressed the state to let them harvest oysters from portions of some sanctuaries on a rotational basis, a management method used in Virginia.

In March, in votes that generally broke along party lines, the Democrat-controlled Maryland House and Senate approved the bill. Hogan vetoed the measure, calling it bad for watermen and the Bay. He accused the legislature of undermining his administration’s efforts to forge a consensus over stewardship of the state’s oyster population.

Unswayed, the House easily overrode Hogan’s veto, while the Senate did so by a narrow margin.

The same back-and-forth may await the oyster management bill that the Assembly also passed in its final days. 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 “consensus recommendations” for maintaining a sustainable harvest and rebuilding the depleted oyster population, estimated to be 1–2% of historic levels.

Supporters say the measure requires the DNR to follow a more inclusive process for developing management strategies that environmentalists and watermen alike can support. But DNR officials view it as potentially disruptive, saying it could prolong their development of the plan and limit their options.

That’s a concern for watermen, who got a sobering preview in mid-April of new harvest limits the DNR may impose on existing public fishery areas. DNR officials told the Oyster Advisory Commission they were considering shortening the six-month season, cutting the number of harvest days per week, reducing the maximum daily catch, or alternately opening and closing areas to limit harvest pressure.

Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, contended that the curbs would hurt his members, may not be effective and might actually increase harvest pressure in some areas. He said the “one thing that could save our industry” would be for the DNR to let watermen try rotational harvests in the sanctuaries not affected by the bill passed over Hogan’s veto.

But after the meeting, Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, the new DNR secretary, said that the oyster management bill would prevent the DNR from letting watermen experiment with any of the other sanctuaries.

Anne Arundel County Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a lead sponsor of the bill, emphasized that the restriction would be temporary. No sanctuary acreage could be opened to harvest, she said, until the DNR has reconstituted its advisory commission and worked to get new management recommendations from them — a process she estimated could take up to two years.

Elfreth said she offered to amend her bill to let watermen start working as early as this year on rebuilding oyster habitat in up to four sanctuaries, to see if they could support rotational harvest in a few years. But the offer wasn’t taken, she said.

Hogan has until late May to sign, veto or let the management bill become law without his signature. If he vetoes it, the General Assembly could vote on an override when it meets in January, unless there’s a special session earlier.

Other controversial oyster bills in Maryland failed to progress, including three that sought to prohibit the dredging of old oyster shells from Man ’o War Shoal, a large reef near the mouth of the Patapsco River. They died in committee.

The DNR has proposed dredging 5 million bushels from the shoal to rebuild oyster reefs in public fishery areas and sanctuaries, as well as to supply oyster farmers with shells. But sport fishermen, environmentalists and even some watermen oppose the project, which they contend could impact finfish and degrade one of the state’s last large reefs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given the project conditional approval, but the Maryland Board of Public Works has not yet issued a decision.

Also dying in committee was legislation sponsored by a pair of St. Mary’s County lawmakers that would have given waterfront property owners the right to preempt the issuance of a state lease to raise oysters in cages or floats in the water off their shoreline.

The DNR has sole authority over whether to lease bottom or the water column for aquaculture. But in response to complaints from waterfront property owners, the Southern Maryland county last year imposed a six-month moratorium on using county docks to work new water-column leases.

Aquaculture legislation fared better in Virginia, where lawmakers approved a measure intended to mediate disputes over navigational dredging through the many leased areas in the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach. They also passed a bill that gives the Virginia Marine Resources Commission more leeway in preventing parties from acquiring leases that they have no intention to use for raising oysters.

See Bay Journal article . . .