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Gerald Winegrad: Does the Maryland General Assembly have the courage to save the oyster and rockfish

Original Article by By Gerald Winegrad January 29, 2020 (Click Here to Read)

The Chesapeake Bay’s decline has affected watermen more than any other segment of our population. Because of poor water quality preventing the bay’s critters from flourishing as they once did and continued harvest pressure, fishery managers must act to restrict harvest to avoid collapses in fisheries.

The door on improving water quality and restricting harvest was closed too late to prevent the collapse of shad, sturgeon, and soft clams.

Oyster populations are at less than 1% of historic levels despite the expenditure of more than $100 million in public funds for planting spat-on-shell and establishing sanctuaries. The Oyster Recovery Partnership has failed to restore oyster populations. A 2018 stock assessment found a 50% decline in Maryland oysters from 1999-2018.

In 2019, the Department of Natural Resources developed a new fishery management planfor oysters knowing of this collapse but failed to do much to restrict harvest despite findings of collapse and that more than 50% of harvest areas are overfished and might be depleted of oysters without action.

Instead of pursuing closure or restrictions on the oyster harvest, especially from overfished areas, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and state Sen. Sarah Elfreth are leading the charge to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill that does nothing to restore oysters and likely blocks meaningful restrictions for at least two years. SB 830 establishes a 25-member commission, with 60% of members from the oyster industry, to develop another oyster management plan that requires a 75% majority vote for any actions.

A 2011 study by the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore and other biologists called for a moratorium, concluding that if oyster harvest had stopped from 1980-2011, adult oyster abundance would be 15.8 times greater than in 2011. Instead, it declined by 92%.

The last two years have seen very poor survival of baby oysters exacerbating the problem and pointing to even more of a collapse. CBF could not find enough spat-on-shell to replant under a $3 million NOAA grant to do this replanting. I grow oysters at my pier near CBF headquarters under this program and all my baby oysters have been dying from water quality problems.

I have urged a closure on the harvest of wild oystersphased in over five years with compensation to oystermen to transition to aquaculture. At least the Legislature should act to close the majority of oyster harvest areas that are overfished.

On rockfish, the coastal management board — Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission — has forced states to act because of alarming rockfish declines. They found female biomass to be only 40% of the target goal and fishing mortality to be a whopping 55% greater than the target.

The 2019 DNR survey of young rockfish found numbers significantly below the 66-year average, the third-lowest in 11 years. This means very poor prospects for adult rockfish in the future. Maryland waters are the cradle of rockfish reproduction.

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