Watermen vs. Scientists: Overfishing in Maryland

(Image by Justin Brito)

In May 2016, Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland quietly allowed a controversial new bill into law. The bill, the Sustainable Oyster Population and Fisheries Act of 2016, requires the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) to study a sustainable harvest rate for the public oyster fishery. The quietness by which this bill came into law does not reflect the vitriolic debate and hard-fought passage through the Maryland General Assembly. Loud and frequent public meetings with dissent coming from watermen, oyster farmers and some of Hogan’s most devoted supporters peppered the highly-contested legislative process. For instance, originally MDNR was not even on the bill; the work was to be totally done by UMCES – a role that was bequeathed upon university, not requested. An outcry that enough stakeholders were not being included in the stock assessment process led to MDNR being added on as a co-investigator. Also the original title of the bill, the Sustainable Oyster Harvest Act of 2016, was thought to presume that oysters were currently not being harvested sustainably and thus the wording had to be revised. A revamped version of the original House bill did become law and has authorized a thorough stock assessment of oysters in the Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.

This stock assessment is just one in a list of many changes that have been occurring in the public oyster fishery in Maryland over the past 7 to 10 years. Aquaculture and private leasing of Bay bottom rates have drastically increased, the MDNR closed off 25% of the public bottom to establish sanctuaries, MDNR fisheries head Tom O’Connell was fired in 2015 (some say for Governor Hogan to appease watermen) and the  halted restoration of the Tred Avon River in January which lost Maryland $1 million in federal money are just a few of the drastic changes. All of these actions, combined with the new law, lead many critics to believe that the state is slowly moving towards an outright moratorium on harvesting or the desire to move away from the strong public fishery history in the state to private endeavors like aquaculture. Opponents believe the stock assessment is a step inevitably pushing the state to reduce harvest levels; the act of the state setting a biological reference point and using scientific guidelines for oyster management will impact the future of the fishery and those who work on the water. Language in the bill seems to support the opponents’ fears concerning reductions; part of the specific guidelines for UMCES and MDNR are to determine if the public fishery is being overfished. The policy implications of this wording do seem to suggest that the state believes that overfishing is occurring and is potentially using the stock assessment as a way to confirm that preconception. However, the law’s proponents say that the guessing game of oyster management makes the likelihood of overfishing much more likely, leaving scientific guidelines as the best method of protecting the long-term viability of the fishery.

This data-driven policy is difficult for watermen to believe because of the recent history of the state taking away public bottom and the evidence of strong catch they are seeing out in the water (over 400,000 bushels landed in the 2015 season follows a general increasing trend since the early 2000’s). In their eyes, the over $300,000 being allocated for the study would better be spent on planting more oyster beds. Their concerns are that the law does not take into account socioeconomic impacts on watermen, working waterfronts, and the seafood industry. These realistic fears were clearly delineated and addressed in a Fiscal and Policy Note released with the bill by the Maryland legislature. The note acknowledged that there were potentially meaningful small business effects of this study, including current day diversion of MDNR time and funds and future potential changes in harvesting licenses and their availability. Watermen and their allies, however, may be putting the cart before the horse. The law just went into effect July 1st, 2016 and results won’t be available until December 2018; their fears about reduced harvest limits are conditional upon the findings of the study and are still more than two years away. Also, although UMCES and MDNR are conducting the survey, all the interim and final reports have to be passed through the Governor’s Office, the Oyster Advisory Commission (an advisory board of stakeholders restarted in Summer 2016 that works with the executive branch to make oyster management decisions), and the General Assembly. There has always been contention between watermen and scientists over oyster management in Maryland going back to the 1800’s and this bill merely continues that antagonistic tradition. With the first interim progress report due on December 1st, 2016, allies and adversaries will soon see some initial results that could lead to monumental changes within the public oyster fishery in Maryland.

Taylor Goelz is a 1st year MPP Student at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.

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