Maryland DNR Looking to Give Reserve Oyster Bottoms to Watermen - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Maryland DNR Looking to Give Reserve Oyster Bottoms to Watermen Full-Time

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(Photo:WBOC) (Photo:WBOC)

CAMBRIDGE, Md.- Harvest reserve bottoms for oysters were established in the early 2000s.  Now, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources says they have served their purpose.

Harvest reserve bottoms have been in the Chesapeake Bay for close to 15 years now.  Those areas were closed off much of the time, and occasionally opened to watermen when the oysters in those locations grew to four inches or longer.  The DNR is looking to release those areas to the watermen, and get rid of the program.

The department says as it stands right now, those locations are not being seeded by the watermen, who instead are investing their time and money into the bottoms they can dredge all season long.  They say that, combined with the sanctuary programs, has made the reserve bottom program somewhat redundant, so they have introduced legislation to return that bottom to full time use.

There are twelve reserve harvest bottoms in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake Bay.  They aren't huge, but if the DNR gets their way, the watermen will be able to work those oyster bottoms all season long, and that has watermen happy.

"Any new bottom would be a plus," said Scott Todd, president of the Dorchester Seafood Harvester's Association.  "Once we start working it, it's going to get a spat set, and then it will grow from then on."

"I think it's like anything.  If the tools are there, and this could potentially be a tool to make the public fisheries better or stronger for everyone, then I think they should do it," said Aubrey Vincent at Lindy's Seafood in Woolford.

The reason they are so willing is because the past few strong oyster seasons have brought more watermen into the fishery, and they are crowding the public bottoms.

"Of course it's limited, the number of licenses are supplied.  But, you have a small area with more and more people working it and stressing it, and it really doesn't provide any benefit to, you know bringing the oysters back and making it stronger for everybody," said Vincent.

The regulation is held up in an Annapolis committee at the moment, the DNR says that's due to concerns from river keepers.  They are aiming to put those reserves into the public fishery this season if possible.

"We need some bottom open now," said Todd.  "There's more people that have gotten into this this year, it's getting tighter and tighter all the time."

There is potentially some hope on the horizon.  The oyster sanctuaries, which have now been in place five years, are now in the process of being studied, and there is a chance that they could be reopened, or put into rotational harvest, but that isn't a slam dunk.  A report is now being created to assess how those sanctuaries are doing in comparison to the public bottom.  That report is due out in July. 

If the report indicates that the sanctuaries should be reopened or put into rotational harvest, whether partially or fully, that wouldn't happen immediately.  The DNR says any change to the sanctuaries would first have to go through legislative review and public comment.

There has been some talk in the past of doing rotational harvest by closing off a section of the existing fishery. Todd said that would just serve to make things worse, by squeezing all those watermen into an even smaller box.

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