Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley outlined a three-step plan Thursday to revive the Chesapeake Bay's native oyster population, which has languished for years at just 1 percent of historic numbers.
The governor, saying a new restoration strategy is long overdue, pointed out that a combined $39 million investment by state and federal governments has been made between 1994 and 2007, with no improvement to oyster numbers.
For too long, O'Malley said, the state has been "literally chasing our own tail" by putting millions of oysters into the bay to boost the population, only to have millions taken out.
"We need to change what we've been doing and make a new tomorrow," O'Malley said, speaking at water's edge next to the former McNasby Oyster Company that closed in 1987 and is now a museum.
Oysters are important to the health of the bay, which is the nation's largest estuary, because they are natural water filters.
The plan will increase the number, size and quality of Maryland's network of oyster sanctuaries from 9 percent to 24 percent of remaining quality habitat and increase the state's ability to enforce protections for sanctuaries.
"This will create jobs for workers to rehabilitate oyster bars, re-establish oyster populations in target areas, allow oysters to live longer, develop natural resistance to disease and to spawn without harvest pressure," O'Malley said.
The plan also moves the state more toward developing aquaculture, which is the practice of growing oysters in cages, racks or trays placed in rivers and creeks. More areas will be made available for leasing to oyster aquaculture.
O'Malley, a Democrat, noted that aquaculture already is producing tens of millions of dollars in dockside value in Virginia.
"That potential exists in Maryland as well," O'Malley said. "We just have to harness it. We have to do the things that we need to do so that we can not only catch up with where Virginia is with aquaculture but hopefully move past them."
The plan also calls for identifying areas off limits to leasing to maintain 167,720 acres of natural oyster bars for the wild oyster fishery, including 76 percent of the bay's remaining quality oyster habitat.
But the plan blindsided watermen, who fear the loss of some of the best oyster beds will put some who are tenuously clinging to a declining industry out of business at a time when jobs are hard to find on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman's Association, said he was only first told of the plan Wednesday. He said watermen were frustrated for not being consulted in what he described as "a big top secret thing."
Still, he said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin assured him during a meeting that the state will work with watermen.
"They said they would work something out with us so we'll see what happens," Simns said.
Griffin underscored that there will be a large public outreach project on the plan. His department will hold open houses around the bay this month and next month to solicit comments. He said regulations will be put together in February and go through another public review and hearing process. That will hopefully culminate in adoption of regulations in May, Griffin said.
"There's a lot of moving parts to this plan," Griffin said. "There's a lot of detail, a lot of maps, so we're going to spend a lot of time working with all stakeholders and the general public."
Kim Kobel, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, cheered the announcement with a "wow," calling it "a monumental day" and "truly a new paradigm to oyster management."
"The state is finally and truly recognizing the ecological value of oysters," Kobel said.
The administration estimated that opening up areas for oyster aquaculture could create 150 operations in Maryland in the short term.
The administration also noted that the number of oyster harvesters has dropped from 2,000 in the mid-1980s to just over 500 annually since 2002. Now, there are only eight oyster processing companies in Maryland, compared to 58 in 1974.
Also, quality oyster bars have dropped 70 percent, from 200,000 to 36,000, the administration said.