Can they still make a living out there?

Oyster sanctuaries among state initiatives to keep watermen's bounty alive

Friday, Nov. 27, 2009

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Staff photo by DARWIN WEIGEL
Calvert County waterman Simon Dean of Lusby heads out to patent tong for oysters on his boat Rough Water earlier this month under the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge on the Patuxent River. Dean spends most of his year working as a charter captain on sport fishing boats out of Solomons, but he oysters five days a week during the fall and winter.

Click here to enlarge this photo
Staff photo by DARWIN WEIGEL
Calvert County waterman Simon Dean of Lusby dumps his catch onto his boat, Rough Water, earlier this month in the Patuxent River near the Solomons bridge.

There are still oysters out there in the Chesapeake Bay — probably 1.6 billion to 2 billion by some estimates. But that is still a small fraction of historical populations.

Now Maryland is hoping to bring a new way of growing and harvesting oysters to skeptical watermen who have done things the same way for generations.

Until recently, large-scale, state-backed efforts at oyster restoration have focused on growing oysters the natural way, in less-controlled conditions out in the wild. This method uses spat on shell and replenishes existing oyster bars.

Maryland's oyster harvest was about 4 million bushels a year at the turn of the 20th century, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. Today, it is about 100,000 bushels a year harvested by about 500 watermen, fewer than 150 from Southern Maryland.

The nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership has coordinated efforts of restoration for a decade and a half. While there is no playbook to guide the group's efforts, it is taking a more scientific approach.

A goal to put 60 percent of the group's efforts toward sanctuaries, where oyster harvesting is prohibited, with the remainder for managed reserves or harvest bars is a "good split," said Stephan Abel, the partnership's executive director. He said the goal meets the group's mission as laid out by Maryland legislators, which is to provide both ecological and economic benefits through oyster restoration.

This year, 59 percent of the partnership's oysters went to sanctuaries. Last month, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources touted a record number of nearly 750 million spat produced and planted this year on about 350 acres of oyster bars at 26 sites across the state's portion of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Money continues to be an issue, though. Abel said it would take $40 million to $50 million a year to get the job done.

Currently there has been about $4 million a year going toward oyster restoration efforts.

Sanctuaries vs. reserves

There are five protected sanctuaries in the Patuxent River and a total of about 40 throughout Maryland's portion of the bay and its other tributaries. There are about 47,000 acres in the sanctuaries and other restricted areas.

There are currently 25 managed reserves, including two in the Patuxent. There are about 2,600 acres of managed reserves in Maryland waters. In the reserves, the state allows oysters to be harvested only when 50 percent of them have grown to 4 inches instead of the usual legal limit of 3 inches.

Mike Naylor, DNR assistant director who oversees the fishery service, said that before harvest the oysters are filtering pollutants from the water, and even once a reserve bar is harvested, he said, 30 to 50 percent of the oysters remain. He likened the efforts to stocking streams with trout or planting trees on state land that would later be harvested.

The current managed reserve system will be significantly changed during the next five years, Abel said. "The watermen community needs to start reinvesting some of the proceeds" from the oysters they harvest from the reserves by reseeding the bars.

Watermen will continue to harvest from public oyster bars, but will also have expanded leasing opportunities, as reserves transition from publicly funded to primarily funded by oystermen, cooperatives or businesses that manage the bars and reinvest proceeds.

Watermen worry that the state wants to turn the bay's oyster fishing over to big business and leave them in dry dock.

Currently, money collected from the oyster industry goes toward seeding reserves.

Watermen pay for a $300 annual license, and oyster buyers pay a $1-per-bushel tax.

For their part, fisheries officials say the watermen need to transition to a new way of doing business or risk being left behind.

"There's always, within the watermen's community, great resistance to change, unless the change is demonstrated to be [for] the better," Naylor said.

The transition to aquaculture has happened more quickly in other parts of the world.

"We are one of the last estuaries where shellfishing is dominated by wild harvest," Naylor said.

The resistance to change is as much about culture as it is about industry.

With only protected sanctuaries to limit where they can fish, oystermen go where they want, seeking out the best spot. With aquaculture, watermen are tied to a spot, tending to oyster beds in a certain area.

"It's like asking a hunter to become a farmer," Naylor said.

"We believe that is the future and we believe that is the best way to protect our resources," Naylor said.

Naylor estimates $30,000 to $40,000 in startup costs for anyone venturing into aquaculture — about what some watermen make each year in gross income.

"It's not so much the money," Naylor said. "It's that your return isn't until two or three years down the road."

The combined federal/state investment oyster recovery activities cost since 1994 has been more than $60 million.

Winds of change

bring caution

Tommy Zinn, the president of the Calvert County Watermen's Association and a part-time crabber and oysterman for decades, is skeptical about the transition.

"We have leased several pieces of oyster grounds and we have oysters growing on them," Zinn said. "We're experimenting with it."

The association has invested $10,000 and did its first planting on a 14-acre lease in August 2007 after dumping clean shells on the bottom.

They have planted more than 10 million young oysters on the leased land, which is in a protected creek on the Calvert side of the Patuxent River.

The Calvert watermen are nearing completion on a second leased area of 19 acres.

"It's taken us a year to get to this," Zinn said. "It's been a long process."

Zinn and the association have already had some of their oyster plantings die off because of disease.

Another effort, which was launched last year, involves $850,000 in federal grants spread over three years to grow oyster larvae at a hatchery at Morgan State University's Estuarine Research Center on the Patuxent River in St. Leonard.

The grant is "to protect the way of life of watermen," Zinn said.

"We're the beneficiaries of any oyster seed that comes out of that hatchery," he said.

Zinn said he would like to see satellite hatcheries throughout the state for watermen or watermen associations to buy oyster seed from for their leased areas.

Still, for now the association is taking it slow.

"Anytime you deal with oysters it's a gamble," he said. An entire planting of spat could get wiped out by disease or even pillaged by other oystermen.

An advantage of privately leased oyster bars is that there is no season limit for harvest. In order to harvest from the association's bar, a person must be a member of the group for at least two years and have participated in planting or caring for the bar.

Donnie Thompson, 57, of Hollywood has spent his life on the water crabbing and fishing for oysters, rockfish and eel — "whatever's in the water."

"A lot of people are — the word is ‘bullheaded' — in their ways of doing things," Thompson said. "But there's always a better way." Other people "have come around" on the potential for aquaculture to boost oyster harvests, he said.

For now, watermen continue to scour the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries using hand tongs and dredging equipment and selling their catch in the cash-only trade of the wholesale market.

"The state is sort of forcing it on them," Zinn said of the plans to revitalize the industry with aquaculture. "The blue-collar watermen aren't fully grasping it. They don't like to do paperwork. They don't like the IRS. They don't trust DNR."

A law passed by the Maryland General Assembly this year requires holders of state-issued leases for submerged land to either plant oysters or lose their lease, and it requires DNR to begin establishing aquaculture enterprise zones.

The first two zones, totaling 150 acres, should be ready sometime next month for lease at $3.50 an acre per year and a $300 application fee. Twenty-five percent of each zone is reserved for licensed watermen for one year.

The other 75 percent is open to anyone, including entrepreneurs from out of state, as a way of promoting "commercially viable aquaculture," Naylor said.

The first two zones are in the Patuxent, one north of and one south of Broomes Island.

A fishery under

mounting stress

Along with pollution and disease, watermen took millions of bushels of oysters a year from the bay and its tributaries over the last century.

"I think the management of the fishery needs to be reviewed," Abel said, stopping short of calling it overfishing.

DNR sets the rules for harvest and enforces the rules. There is an oyster management plan in place, but some of the aspects of the plan have never been implemented, Abel said.

"There are a whole lot of different oyster plans out there and that's part of the problem," Naylor said. A comprehensive plan is due out this month and will include a map that clearly delineates public bars, reserves, sanctuaries and other zones.

Federal aid also is being aimed at aquaculture. In January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared Maryland's commercial blue crab fishery a disaster. It awarded the state $2.2 million — the first installment of an expected $10 million over three years — to revitalize the fishing industry. Part of those federal dollars will go toward scholarships for college courses in aquaculture.

Maryland also set aside $3 million to employ watermen in oyster bar restoration, in removing abandoned crab pots and in monitoring the health of oyster and crab populations.

After closing the female crab season early, the state hired watermen to clear sediment off oyster bars and dredge shells for use in oyster sanctuaries. "If it hadn't been for that, a lot of [watermen] wouldn't have made it through the winter" last year, Zinn said.

The Oyster Recovery Partnership employed some 50 boats at various times to help with programs.

"It's really been a help to them, it's really kept some in business," Zinn said of the managed reserves and contracting work given to watermen to help in restoration efforts.

Staff writer Sean R. Sedam contributed to this report.

Three types of oyster habitat

Sanctuary oyster reefs — off limits to harvesting at all times, provide habitat for flora and fauna, spat planted at a volume of one million to two million per acre.

Managed reserves — created in 2001, oysters left in for extra year for additional ecological purposes/benefits (filtering, habitat, spawning potential), harvested upon approval by the state when median size is 4 inches instead of the usual legal size of 3 inches. When opened, it's only open for a few weeks and watermen are restricted in the type of harvest gear they can use (primarily hand tonging only).

Harvest bars — open when fishery season is open (Oct. 1 to March 31).