Efforts to Restore the Chesapeake Bay’s Native Oyster Population

April 11, 2013

Governor Martin O’Malley today announced good news regarding the State’s ongoing efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay’s native oyster population. Results of Maryland’s 2012 Fall Oyster Survey show that oyster population and reproduction increased for the second consecutive year, and diseases, which decimated the oyster population in 2002, remained far below their long-term averages.
“Thanks to hard work, commitment and strategic investments, we are finally witnessing our native oyster begin to grow and rebuild,” said Governor O’Malley. “Though there is still much work to be done, together, by supporting our State’s aquaculture and sanctuaries, and by encouraging stewardship and enforcement efforts, we will fully restore this iconic species.”

In one of the longest running resource-monitoring programs in the world, Maryland has monitored the status of the State’s oyster population through annual field surveys since 1939. The survey tracks reproduction levels, disease levels and annual mortality rates, and offers a window into future population levels.

“Maryland has seen an increased number of oysters in its portion of Chesapeake Bay, thanks in part to the high survivorship of a strong 2010 year class,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Secretary John Griffin. “While the population remains at less than one percent of historic levels, it’s encouraging to hear that these natural filters are on the incline. They are vital to improving Maryland’s water quality and supporting a healthy ecosystem.”

The 2012 Fall Oyster Survey found:
Oyster samples revealed a 93 percent survival rate (number of oysters found alive in a sample), which is the highest since 1985.
Oyster abundance increased for the second consecutive year, and is at its highest level since 1999;
Oyster reproduction scored the sixth highest result since 1985, and the second year of improving reproduction in three years;
Prevalence for MSX disease set a record-low; and
Dermo disease increased moderately from its record-low of 2011. (Measures for the disease have remained below long-term averages for 9 of the past 10 years).

“The goal is to foster natural disease resistance, which can only be achieved through disease challenges that resistant oysters survive. The low disease mortality rates for 2012 may be a result of this resistance,” said DNR Fisheries Service Director Tom O’Connell. “Additionally, Maryland’s oyster sanctuaries continue to provide adults with a safe place where they can handle the stresses of disease and the ups and downs of reproduction.”

Since 1994, the Chesapeake Bay oyster population has languished at less than one percent of historic levels. In 2011, researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science concluded thatMaryland’s oyster population was just 0.3 percent of its abundance in the early 1800s. This decline is attributed to heavy fishing pressure beginning in the late 1800s, oyster disease mortalities, and the depletion of oyster habitat. Over the past 30 years, the amount of suitable oyster habitat has declined 80 percent ─ from 200,000 acres down to 36,000 acres ─ and Maryland’s once famous oyster harvest fell from about 1.5 million bushels a year to an average of 142,000.

In 2010, the State adopted regulations to implement Governor O’Malley’s Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan. The plan increased Maryland’s network of oyster sanctuaries from 9 percent to 24 percent of the remaining quality habitat; increased areas open to leasing for oyster aquaculture and streamlined the permitting process; established a $2.7 million financial assistance program for aquaculture interests; and maintained 76 percent of the Bay’s remaining quality oyster habitat for a more targeted, sustainable and scientifically managed public oyster fishery. The plan also focused on stepping up enforcement and penalties to protect the State’s investment in the oyster population.

Governor O’Malley’s 2014 capital budget includes $9.5 million for restoration work in HarrisCreek and Little Choptank River sanctuaries, where protection and restoration efforts are beginning to show positive results. The budget also includes an additional $500,000 for aquaculture loan assistance through the Maryland Agricultural & Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation (MARBIDCO), a State-run business assistance program. The State has issued 52 new shellfish aquaculture leases, with about 85 pending approval. Thirty of the approved leases went to watermen. MARBIDCO has helped 36 watermen with shellfish aquaculture operation development loans.

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