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Wild Oysters

Isn’t it time for a strategy change?

In the years after the Civil War, oysters were so lucrative that people turned to oyster piracy, leading to the Oyster Wars. The bloodshed peaked in the late 1800s, leading to the founding of Maryland’s Oyster Police 150 years ago, the precursor to our Department of Natural Resources.
      It was with grim amusement that I read the recent headline, “Bay oyster population cut in half from 1999.” A keystone natural resource crustacean that was once both numerous and largely responsible for a Bay water clarity approaching 30 feet is continuing its torturous decline. Could it finally be time for a radical shift in our resource management policy?
      Despite millions of dollars invested in oyster management and propagation and more millions of tax and charitable dollars to support organizations devoted, at least in part, to the monitoring and recovery of the valued resource, a recent Department of Natural Resources study has found the Bay’s native oyster has once again been seriously reduced in numbers. The study was based on 10 years of counts at some three dozen test sites and analyzed with help from University of Maryland Center for Study of Environmental Sciences.
      One hundred and fifty years ago this very year, Maryland founded what would become our Department of Natural Resources. The job of the Oyster Police was protecting and managing the Chesapeake’s oysters. It was a major and important decision that recognized for the first time the value of an enormous natural resource.
     Since that event and despite DNR’s intense stewardship, we’ve witnessed the disappearance of more than 99.5 percent of Bay oysters.
     DNR issued a statement that the public process of revising the current and obviously ineffective oyster management plan will begin anew. 
      The Chesapeake Bay Foundation — which has long absorbed many millions of dollars in charitable donations and tax-supported grant monies to monitor and encourage our conservation efforts and provide ecological education to the public — quietly issued a suggestion for a new state plan to protect “existing and restored oyster reefs to significantly increase the overall oyster population.” I’m not sure whether this is actually a new request or the same one we see every time there’s yet another indicator that the oyster population continues toward oblivion.
       The Watermen’s Association, representing the Chesapeake’s commercial oyster industry, made no comment.
      The only bright spot on the horizon is oyster farming, a growing trend in the Bay that has a decent chance of eventually winning the centuries-old oyster battles and halting the extermination of a historic resource.
      Perhaps it’s finally time for Maryland to plan and prepare to terminate the charade of wild oyster management and the significant as well as useless expenditure of tax dollars accompanying those efforts. Time to begin a firm transition to eventually declare oyster farms the only legal source of Bay oysters. We could then begin shifting efforts and dollars into developing this industry in a logical and controlled manner as well as providing Bayside Maryland with a significant number of new jobs.
      Freed from commercial harvest and mismanagement, the beleaguered remnants of our wild oysters could at last be free to breed and develop disease- and pollutant-resistant strains throughout the Bay. Perhaps in another 50 years or so they could provide some additional clarity to Chesapeake waters.
Fish Finder
      The bite, I’m told, is good. Family plans, holiday celebrations and a bird-hunting trip to the Midwest have kept me off of the water. But I hear modest sized fish are around all the regular hotspots with trolling, jigging and baitfishing, in that order, securing a limit of old linesides. Fat and firm, rockfish are at their table-quality peak.
      Small and medium soft plastics and bucktails are delivering, dragged deep with old-school bottom-bouncing. Bottom-bouncing involves holding a trolling rod equipped with enough weight to get the bait to the bottom while moving at two to three knots and giving the rod a strong sweep every time you feel the sinker hit bottom.
     Chumming with the freshest cut possible is also a reliable producer and a relaxing way to spend a day on the closing weeks of the season.
      Find the best bite for quality fish around the mouth of the Potomac at Lookout Point.
     White perch are also biting in the mainstem Bay when you can find a concentration. Just south of the Bay Bridge Eastern Shore rockpile and depths of over 40 feet off of the mouth of the Severn have been traditional locations this time of year.
     Blue crabs are mostly dug into the mud for the winter by now, but commercial watermen are still finding a few in deeper waters. Prices for a dozen or so are a bargain for one last taste before winter locks up the storehouse December 15.
Best of luck to all, with the hope you had a tasty Thanksgiving.
Hunting Seasons
Deer, antlered and antlerless, firearms, thru Dec. 8
Sika deer, firearms, thru Dec. 8
Sea ducks, limit 5, thru Jan. 11 
Rabbit, limit 4, thru Feb. 28
Squirrel, limit 6, thru Feb. 28