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Annapolis, October 11 _ Governor Martin O’Malley today announced that the State and its partners produced and planted a record 1.25 billion native baby oysters (spat) in Maryland this year ─ the first time any hatchery in the nation has produced more than one billion Eastern oyster spat in a single season. Joined by scientists, partners, stakeholders and citizen stewards at the AnnapolisMaritimeMuseum, Governor O’Malley also updated stakeholders on the status of the Harris Creek Oyster Sanctuary and progress under all 10 points of Maryland’s Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan.“Four years ago, we proposed a bold plan with better choices to rebuild our oyster population, its vital ecological functions and the thriving industry it once supported,” said Governor O’Malley. “Today we celebrate significant progress under every step of our 10-point plan and the many partners responsible for it.”
Governor O’Malley congratulated the University of Maryland Horn Point Lab Oyster Hatchery team in Cambridge, who set a new national record with the production of 1.25 billion Eastern oyster spat this year. The Governor credited an unprecedented number of State, federal and private partners with the resulting 750 million baby oysters planted at the Harris Creek Sanctuary, which, at 377 acres, is the largest, most comprehensive restoration effort of its kind on the East Coast.
Adopted in 2010, Governor O’Malley’s Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan was designed to help restore the Chesapeake Bay’s native oyster population, create new jobs and encourage economic activity in Maryland.
This increase in hatchery production is a critical component of the plan. With shell processing and deployment conducted by the Oyster Recovery Partnership, spat were also used to supply aquaculture businesses, the State’s citizen oyster growing program, localized conservation group efforts, as well as a program that trains watermen to produce oyster seed for their own leases.
“It is significant that watermen are involved in the overall oyster recovery and aquaculture effort, because oysters are more than environmentally significant ─ they are part of the economic, cultural and historic fabric of the Chesapeake Bay,” said Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. “We have seen the level of commitment grow far beyond State and Federal and private partners: 280 restaurants, caterers and seafood dealers and other businesses are now supporting or recycling oyster shell for this work and local governments have opened 26 facilities to make it easier for the public to recycle shell.”
This year the General Assembly passed the No Shell Left Behind tax credit – which provides a $1.00 per bushel tax credit for recycled oyster shells.
“We are learning that oysters do more than provide us food, create habitat for fish and crabs, and filter the water,” said Donald Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “Research has demonstrated that restored oyster reefs do a tremendous job in removing polluting nutrients from the Bay. That’s why what we have accomplished in HarrisCreek can be an important contributor to achieving our restoration goals for the Bay as a whole.”
To target restoration efforts, State and federal agencies worked together to prioritize and establish sanctuaries in the most promising areas of the Bay, expanding protected waters from 9 to 24 percent in 2010. HarrisCreek was chosen for the initial large-scale restoration project because its water quality, salinity levels, shape and location all point to a high likelihood of success.
To help develop a sustainable wild oyster fishery, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has implemented commercial self-reporting of oyster harvests and individual bushel tagging, and is developing area-based harvest targets for the oyster fishery. In addition, to ensure that all investments are protected, the State of Maryland has increased penalties for poachers, has enhanced monitoring capabilities, and now has monthly dedicated court dates for natural resource cases in more than a dozen counties.
To expand Maryland’s aquaculture industry – and the jobs that these new businesses create ─ DNR worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to streamline the permitting process and partnered with the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation to offer affordable loan financing to shellfish growers. Since 2011, $2.7 million in loans have been approved for 49 shellfish aquaculture projects in 10 counties; 85 new shellfish aquaculture leases have been issued on 1,567 acres ─ 41 to watermen; and another 66 lease applications are being processed. The Oyster Recovery Partnership has secured $1.1 million in private funding from the Philip E. and Carole R. Ratcliffe Foundation to continue aquaculture training and business support for watermen over next two years.
To increase citizen involvement and encourage stewardship, the Marylanders Grow Oysters Program has expanded from one tributary and 170 growers in 2008, to 1,800 growers in 30 rivers and creeks ─ engaging as many as 5,000 citizen stewards. Maryland inmates have produced 12,000 cages used for this program. Pre-release inmates also work directly with DNR staff at the PineyPointAquacultureCenter to support spat production. Together these volunteers have grown 6 million oysters, all of which are planted in protected waters.
“This is truly an example of how much can be accomplished by working cooperatively towards a common goal to bring healthy oyster populations back to Chesapeake Bay,” said DNR Secretary Joe Gill. “None of these achievements would have been possible without an incredible amount of hard work, cooperation and financial contributions from our public and private partners.”
State, federal and non-governmental partners include: NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, University of Maryland College Park, University of Maryland Sea Grant, Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation, and the Maryland Departments of Natural Resources, Transportation, and Public Safety and Correctional Services.
The Chesapeake Bay’s native oyster population historically supported a robust commercial fishery that was believed to have filtered the entire volume of the Bay’s water every few days. Since 1994 this population has languished at one percent of historic levels; quality oyster bars have decreased 70 percent from 200,000 to 36,000; and the number of harvesters has dwindled from 2,000 in the mid- 1980s to just over 500 annually since 2002. Today there are only eight oyster processing companies in Maryland, down from 58 in 1974.
The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s oyster cultivation facility at Horn Point is a focal point for oyster restoration and research in Maryland and the region. Researchers are working cooperatively with other organizations to continue to improve production methods and learn more about how best to return our once abundant oyster resource to the Chesapeake. Future efforts are aimed at improving bottom preparation techniques to enhance survival, obtaining good quality estimates for improving deployment techniques for the most efficient grow-out, and continuing to improve husbandry for the hatchery.