Maryland has 36,000 acres of oyster bars, with nearly a quarter cordoned off from watermen. Over a decade ago, the General Assembly created the Oyster Advisory Commission to develop strategies to restore and manage the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay. Disease and overfishing has dropped the oyster population below 1 percent of pre-Colonial levels.
In August 2016, the Department of Natural Resources released a report that showed an improvement inside the protected areas’ boundaries. According to the report, the oysters are more abundant, larger and show a higher potential to reproduce.
The state commission and republic Governor Larry Hogan’s administration were reviewing a plan that could open 11 percent of the 8,600 acres of the protected oyster beds to watermen.
On Wednesday, the Assembly approved legislation by veto-proof margin that blocks any revisions to sanctuary maps. Environmentalists were satisfied with the votes in the House and Senate, but Mark Belton Natural Resources Secretary accused the lawmakers of interfering in an independent process “to appease special interest groups.”
“Their vote demonstrates a disdain of the commission’s progress and for science itself,” Belton said in a statement. He said the lawmakers’ action was “based on fear, not the facts.”
Environmental and Democratic lawmakers have accused Governor Hogan of putting the oystermen above wildlife. Just last month, the Hogan administration fired a veteran crab scientist. Administration officials denied the accusations, saying they were only giving watermen a voice they lacked under former Governor Martin O’Malley.
“We were working along pretty well and this thing came right out of left field and kind of derailed everything we’ve been working toward,” said Jim Mullin, director of the Maryland Oystermen Association. “It poked us in the eye with a stick. It’s unfortunate.”
He went on to say that the watermen were blindsided by the legislation and are left discouraged once again.