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The Franchot Interview



  • Aug 24, 2021

  • Star Democrat Newspaper EASTON — Commercial oystering should be phased out entirely and replaced with the aquaculture industry in order to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay, said Comptroller Peter Franchot, a leading candidate in the 2022 Democratic primary race for governor, when asked about his oyster recovery plan. Franchot made the comments during an interview with The Star Democrat on Aug. 18, during which he promoted himself as a candidate who will overhaul how the wild fishery operates — at least with the oyster industry — if he wins the gubernatorial election. Franchot promised to phase out commercial oystering, which would likely start with a moratorium on the harvest of the water-filtering shellfish — a population estimated to be at less than 1% of its peak from the late 19th Century after bouts of disease, overfishing and a decline in the Chesapeake Bay’s health — but also put more than 700 watermen’s jobs in peril. “I have a lot of empathy for (watermen) because they’re hardworking and it’s not their fault we’re having climate change,” Franchot said, then added: “Ultimately, I think we’re going to have to partner with watermen and help them financially and phase out some of the practices that have not been successful.” On the Eastern Shore, where most of the watermen in Maryland work, Franchot’s stance is opposed by watermen and some rural voters who disagree with phasing out the wild fishery. Rob Newberry, the chairman of the Delmarva Fisheries Association (which represents watermen, was dismayed but not surprised by the candidate’s public comments. He’s had private conversations with Franchot, who has expressed similar views behind closed doors. Newberry said watermen should get the chance to counter Franchot’s oyster plan, and explained that environmental organizations and progressive Democrats have long pushed to phase out the wild fishery for aquaculture, but the industry “cannot and will not exist” without the support of watermen and live oystering. “Their main goal is to put the wild fishery out of business. But as long as there is a living waterman alive, the wild fishery will never be extinct,” Newberry said. “If they want a war on this, (Franchot) is going to get a war. With the comment he made, he is not welcome anymore on the Eastern Shore. When he comes across the Bay Bridge, he best go to Ocean City and not stop.” Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists and watermen sit on the Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC), which is moderated by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The OAC is tasked with finding a balanced solution to oyster recovery by the end of the year — which means restoring the shellfish population and maintaining a public fishery. But Franchot said he would rather “properly compensate” watermen for losing their jobs than find a bipartisan solution. According to Franchot, that would mean a financial dividend or other severance pay. “A lot of watermen see the writing on the wall,” he said. “You’re going to bring them in and say, ‘Look, this is much like we did with tobacco.’ (Tobacco) used to be a big product in southern Maryland, and now it has been replaced with a booming economy and sales at farmer’s markets all over the state. Flowers and other things they are growing.” In aquaculture, shellfish farmers lease out water bottom to grow oysters. But the industry makes up less than half of all oyster sales in the state. In 2020, the aquaculture industry was estimated to have a little over 500 lease owners in the state and a dockside value of more than $3 million. The wild fishery pulls in about $10 million for oysters alone. Franchot said “aquaculture has a strong role to play” in the future, predicting it could grow over time. Without a public fishery, watermen would likely have nowhere to go. Newberry said that the fishermen could not move into the aquaculture practice without serious financial loss, considering it can take years to get a good harvest from aquaculture. A majority of oyster spat dies, as a small percentage survives disease before adulthood. Newberry represents at least 80% of the watermen in the state and said most watermen would not transition into aquaculture. Oystermen “invest $100,000 in a boat, $20,000 in gear, and $10,000 in licenses,” the chairman added. “The bottom line: you have exposed yourself in the wild fishery to a loss of investment (and) you’re tied up $200,000 for three years with no income.” If they were to be financially compensated instead during a phase out, Newberry said watermen would start negotiations at a million dollar payout for each fisher. “Nobody holds a gun to our head. Why do we do what we do?” Newberry asked. “Because we love it.” DNR has tightly regulated the industry, and the resource has become political, with environmentalists pushing for more regulations and watermen asking for less. Last year, watermen harvested more than 330,000 bushels of oysters. For the upcoming 2021-2022 season, which stretches from the fall to early spring, DNR gave watermen another day of harvest and the northern portion of the Bay, which Newberry called “fantastic” but environmental organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) objected to because oysters are still recovering and the latest stock assessment, or annual report on the shellfish population, showed positive gains but still “chronic overfishing.” It’s unclear if the Bay Foundation supports policies proposed by Franchot. CBF does not endorse candidates and also declined to comment on this story, citing its status as a nonprofit. “We don’t have enough information at this point to adequately comment on Franchot’s proposed oyster policy,” said A.J. Metcalf, the communications spokesperson for CBF. Franchot is part of a crowded Democratic primary field looking to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Franchot has served as Maryland comptroller since 2007. As part of his recovery plan, Franchot would also make sure there are a billion adult oysters in the Bay, he said in the interview, adding that they filter 50 to 60 gallons of water daily, ultimately contributing to clean water and environmental sustainability in the Bay. Watermen already plant millions of oysters a year, as does CBF and other environmental organizations, often in partnership with DNR and the state — but many of them don’t survive into adulthood, mostly due to disease. Market-size oysters, which are over three inches, vary between 200 and 600 million in the Bay. Franchot said he is working closely with the Oyster Recovery Partnership and its board chair, Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms. The ORC is committed to restoring oyster reefs and supporting aquaculture. Oyster recovery is a priority for Franchot, who wants to see stronger environmental progress in the Bay as part of his campaign pledge to clean up the nation’s largest estuary. He’s promised to research solutions to restoring oysters and patching up dead zones, or low oxygen areas, in the Bay. “My contribution to the state is that I am going to have people that are testing, systemizing, strategizing about how to do these things,” Franchot said.

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