December 8, 2020

Oysters — with a side of frustration

Oysters — with a side of frustration

NewspaperDecember 6, 2020 | Sunday Star (Easton, MD)
Author: BRAD DRESS bdress@chespub.com | Page: A1 | Section: News

ANNAPOLIS — The Oyster Advisory Commission is tasked with establishing
recommendations to end overfishing and increase oyster abundance, but
political divides between watermen and environmentalists have only widened
during the pandemic, signaling a difficult path ahead as the commission works
to reach its 2021 goals.

Small, technical issues during virtual meetings are revealing longstanding
conflicts and difficulties between members on each side of the political aisle,
with some watermen complaining that little is being accomplished as 2020
draws to a close.

Rob Newberry, the chairman of the Delmarva Fisheries Association,
complained that the meetings, which have been mostly virtual because of the
pandemic, are difficult for the watermen to attend because they have less
reliable devices and inter-net connections.

A Nov. 9 meeting left many watermen, who had gathered at the firehouse on
Kent Island, confused after glitches during a virtual meeting.
“We didn’t know what they were doing, we couldn’t hear it,” said Newberry.
“Communication was worthless and some watermen had had enough. Next
thing I know, two of them had walked out.”

Newberry also alleged the meetings have not focused on any models or real
solutions, instead becoming educational sessions about oyster management.
The waterman said the sessions involve “cartoons” about how oysters
reproduce, which he said is treating watermen “like children.”

The OAC must submit a plan to “end the overfishing of oysters in all areas of
the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries,” while sustaining a public fishery, by
the end of 2021, according to its operating guidelines.

The next meeting will be held on Dec. 14, but Newberry said many watermen
are discouraged by the politics of the OAC, casting doubt that the commission
will come to a consensus anytime soon.

“So many meetings and nothing has been done,” he said. “Politicizing of a
natural resource only leads to two things: the demise of that natural resource,
and the demise of the industry that is based on that resource, regardless of
what that resource is. If we don’t start moving forward, we will walk away
again.”

David Sikorski, the executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association
and a member of the OAC, said both groups need to work together to create
solutions, and there is still plenty of time to come up with a recommendation
package.

“COVID has impacted our ability to be effective,” he said. “But I fully believe in
the process that requires all the stakeholders to come to the table. I show up to
every meeting ready to weigh in. I still stand committed to that ideal.”

The commission was reconvened earlier this year, following state legislation
that reformed the OAC, which was first created in 2007 after bouts of disease
had killed off the oyster population, leaving it at 1% of its historic peak during
the late 1800s.

The OAC was instrumental in advising policies that increased oyster bar
sanctuaries to cover about 25% of the Chesapeake Bay, and it provided more
opportunities for aquaculture, or oyster farming. But the commission largely
remained dormant afterward.

After its recommendations, the oyster population increased, with a new high
of 270,000 bushels harvested in 2019.

But a 2018 stock assessment report revealed that half of all oyster bars were
being overfished, and some environmentalists advocated for increased
regulations on watermen, reducing their bushel limits and the number of days
they can fish.

The regulations led to more divisions between environmentalists and
watermen.

The reformed OAC, with 33 members, was created to recommend policy going
forward, based on a consensus between the two groups and the aquaculture
industry.

In February 2020, Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the legislation that reformed the commission, predicting the revised OAC will cause more harm than good. But he was overridden by the state legislature.

After the vote, Department of Natural Resources Secretary Jeannie
Haddaway-Riccio warned in a statement the OAC will start “delaying our
ability to enhance our state-managed oyster sanctuaries and further strain the
relationship between the very stakeholders the legislature wants to come to
consensus.”

About 60% of the commission consists of representatives from watermen
associations across the state, with 11 counties pitching in. The other 40% are
environmentalists and aquaculture representatives.

DNR moderates the commission, while some state government officials
supervise meetings but have no voting power.

The commission needs a 75% supermajority to pass policy recommendations.
Because of this, Newberry said it will likely be impossible to pass meaningful
models or solutions, considering that watermen need 15% of the group to
agree with them if they have their majority backing the policy
recommendation. He says the two sides agree on nothing.

The OAC began meeting in August, in the midst of the pandemic. It quickly
ran into trouble with the virtual format, and watermen asked if they could
meet in a public place for a hybrid meeting, insisting they needed some form
of personal interaction.

Glitchy connections issues were still present at the last meeting on Nov. 9,
leading to the latest difficulties.

Rep. Johnny Mautz, R-37B-Talbot, who sits on the commission as a nonvoting
member, called the polarization between the two groups “disappointing” and
the latest meetings “most challenging.”

“Every once in awhile I see something where you have general agreement, but
the stakeholders are so used to using forms as leverage for their own
priorities,” he said. “The most challenging thing is, just as DNR was adjusting
to legislative changes (to the OAC) COVID struck. Without a doubt, the virtual
meetings have been challenging.”

To facilitate better meetings in the future, DNR proposed handing out iPads to
commissioners in its November interim report. In a statement, the agency said

it will work with the watermen to facilitate better meetings, and that it is
hopeful the OAC will come up with a consensus package.

“Discussions on potential management options are already underway,” DNR
said. “The department anticipates that the model will be fully developed in
2021.”

Still, the commission continues to struggle with deep policy disagreements.
Watermen want fewer sanctuaries in the Bay, which they said have had little
restoration work done in them, and rotational harvests among oyster bars,
leaving some to be fished and others blocked off during a given season.
Environmentalists are pushing for a Total Allowable Catch, or an overall
bushel limit for the watermen.

Newberry said some watermen are discouraged by the disagreements and he
accused environmentalists of trying to phase out the public fishery instead of
coming to agreement over policy.

“Very little has been accomplished other than more regulations on the
watermen,” he said.

Sikorski said the OAC is “one heck of a better start” than before. He added that
the commission is needed because oysters are a public resource, but he called
for a collective process going forward.

“Watermen versus environmentalists is just lazy,” he said. “The nature of life
is that people are different. I don’t put them in groups. I don’t like binary
things. We are a collective community trying to make things work.”

The polarization is not new; a December 2019 report from DNR called the
previous OAC sometimes “dysfunctional.”

Even before the pandemic, the OAC faced a steep climb. Now some are
questioning what it can achieve.

“We are not going to change the course of this with one major decision,” said
Mautz. “It will be a series of little successes that lead to a larger success. That
is my vision for how stewardship improves.”

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