Facts, not deception
By: Capt. Robert Newberry
A recent article in The Star Democrat (Talbot County Council extends support to watermen during political battle over oyster management; Dec. 18. 2020) mentioned the briefing given to the Talbot County Council by watermen of Talbot County. In that briefing were facts presented to the council on where and how much money was spent by those watermen on oyster replenishment.
Both the replenishment of oysters and shell were accomplished by the watermen of that county using funds generated by the bushel tax they pay on the oysters sold. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources quoted that there was a 53% increase in biomass of oysters from 2019 to 2020 in harvestable areas of the Chesapeake. The department also noted that 61% of all oyster bars were unproductive in 2019. This also includes harvestable areas as well, but mainly focuses oyster bars that have been left alone as sanctuaries under current legislative law.
Allison Colden of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation stated that they plant millions of spat in sanctuaries and questioned why the watermen should be left to manage the resource. She also stated the greatest misleading fact of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay: That is the 1% historic level since the 1800s.
Does this organization think they are the only ones that plant oysters and shell in the Chesapeake Bay? The answer to that is a plain and simple no. Since 2010, when these sanctuaries were created in the Chesapeake Bay, the recruitment and production of oysters naturally has been on the decrease until recently. With spat counts up 53% over the past couple of years, specifically in areas that are being harvested, it is a fact that evidently bothers environmental groups. With the millions of dollars that have been spent, specifically $63 million in the Choptank River complex, one would think that oysters would be jumping out of the water. The facts at hand state that is not true in these areas that have been left alone as sanctuaries.
Now let’s get to the 1% oyster population that they constantly put out there. In the 1800s we did have watermen working on the Bay from Maryland, but what these people forget to tell you is that we also had large ships from North Carolina to Massachusetts harvesting our oysters out of the Bay 24/7 365. Until 1927, when size limits on oysters were put at a 3-inch minimum, those years between the 1800 and 1927 were wide open to everybody. If you correlate the numbers of oysters today, from back in 1927 to the current time, the level is approximately 13% to 16% and not 1%.
What they also don’t tell you is that there were not millions of people living in the watershed at that time and no wastewater treatment plants; there was not mass development of waterfront property, there were not big shipping interests in the Bay, and pollution did not exist at that time. With all those factors, one could easily understand why we are where we are today with the oyster population.
Allison Colden also commented on her questioning the watermen to manage the resource. It seems to me, along with all my fellow watermen, we have done a pretty good job of managing our resource to date, with our limited financial input. The fact is we’re doing a lot better than these environmental groups are doing, being that they have invested tens of millions of dollars into the so-called oyster restoration, and have failed to surpass what the watermen have done, specifically over the last 10 years.
We were told by the former administration under former Gov. Martin O’Malley that the watermen would be wanting more sanctuaries because of their high level of reproduction. According to the facts, over the past 10 years this has not worked. On the other hand, what the watermen have done and what they have harvested, has increased! As of today, there are more oysters in the harvestable areas than we have seen in the past 10 years. This was even accomplished with bushel limit reductions, working day reductions, and major market issues of closure due to demand, not supply, of the oysters.
One other fact, which the Chesapeake Bay Foundation does not want to admit, is the survivability rate of hatchery-raised oysters. Here is the fact: 97% to 98% of all hatchery-raised oysters do not reach market size, and die. This information was supplied by the University of Maryland lab in Solomons, Maryland. So for every 1 million oysters you plant, only 20,000 survive — not a very good investment, is it? On the other hand, the way the watermen did it from 1960 to 2006 through the Seed and Shell Program, the survivability rate was 90%. And by the way, this program was derailed by both the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Coastal Conservation Association in 2006. This program of oyster replenishment also generated over 59 million bushels of oysters and over $70 million in tax revenue. One would also assume that the watermen did a better job with the oysters than the CBF has done, even over the past 10 years. And don’t forget this one other fact: On the CBF report card for the Chesapeake Bay, oysters have maintained an F rating consistently over the past years. If they are getting an F rating by the CBF, why have the oysters increased over the past several years? Because Mother Nature and the good Lord made it happen.
In summary, the fact is that the watermen have done a better job with the oysters working with DNR than any ENGO (Environmental Non-Government Organization) has done with millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. The general public needs to know these facts and put their money where it gets the biggest return. Maybe a good idea is to have an open public forum between the ENGOs and the watermen to set the record straight before it’s too late. This over-regulation, and deception of the facts by these ENGOs needs to stop now!
I think when the public sees the facts, we will finally get the amount of oysters back in the water that we need to help clean up this Chesapeake Bay that we love so dearly. If we continue on the current track that we’re on of non-factual deception by these environmental leaders, the ones that will suffer the most are the oysters and our Chesapeake Bay.
Captain Robert Newberry, a Queen Anne’s County farmer and waterman, is Chairman of Delmarva Fisheries Association, Inc., a trade organization based in Chestertown.