A recent bill in Maryland prevents five oyster sanctuaries from being opened for oyster harvesting without legislative approval. The bill applies to oyster sanctuaries in Harris Creek and the Tred Avon, Little Choptank, St. Mary’s and Manokin rivers.
For more than a century, oysters have made up one of the region’s most valuable commercial fisheries, and the filter-feeder continues to clean our waters and offer food and habitat to other animals. But over-harvesting, disease and habitat loss have led to a severe drop in oyster populations. Today, native oyster populations are at less than one percent of historic levels.
In the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Chesapeake Bay Program set a goal to restore oyster reefs and populations in 10 rivers—five in Maryland and five in Virginia—by 2025. Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River and the Tred Avon River have been selected as three of five Maryland tributaries, and as of 2018, the St. Mary’s and Manokin rivers are both under consideration for selection.
According to a July 2018 restoration update from Maryland, 716 acres of oyster reefs are considered complete, with Harris Creek fully restored, and 222 acres of reefs remain to be restored in the Tred Avon and Little Choptank rivers.
The new bill doesn’t change much for two of the tributaries—the Bay Journal reports that restoration in Harris Creek and the Tred Avon River was completed with some federal funding, a condition of which was that no harvesting be allowed in these sanctuaries. However, Maryland has considered restoring the Manokin and St. Mary’s rivers solely with state funds, which would have allowed the state to later decide to open the sanctuaries to harvest.
While it hasn’t happened in Chesapeake sanctuaries before, opening oyster restoration sites for harvest is not unheard of in the Bay. Though much of Virginia’s oyster harvest comes from private farming, where sections of the river bottom are leased, there are some areas in Virginia that open for public harvest on a rotational basis. Different regions open for harvest each year, giving oysters in the closed regions a chance to spawn and grow for two to three years before they open again.
Watermen argue that this kind of rotational harvest actually helps the oyster reefs to grow, because it prevents silt and sediment from settling on top of the reef and suffocating the oysters. Others argue that oyster dredging equipment can break up the reef and have a negative impact on baby oysters, called spat.
Oyster sanctuaries can often be a contentious issue, and this bill was no exception. Though several environmental groups supported the bill, Maryland watermen were in strong opposition, arguing that the bill would negatively impact their harvests and livelihoods. The oyster industry contributes significantly to the local economy—the 1.19 million pound oyster harvest in 2015 was worth more than $15 million, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Maryland Governor Hogan vetoed the bill in response to the watermen’s concerns, but the legislature overrode the veto.
Despite the sanctuary debates, restoring oyster reefs can bring a variety of benefits to the Chesapeake Bay. An adult oyster is capable of filtering up to 50 gallons of water each day, making the water cleaner for other aquatic life. Recent research conducted in the Choptank River watershed estimated that mature oyster reefs can contribute a 160 percent increase in blue crab harvests per year.
Learn more about the role oysters play in a healthy Chesapeake.