From the Desk of Alan Girard Spring 2016

Science as our Guide 

Maryland's Eastern Shore Director Alan Girard. Photo by Nikki Davis.
CBF's Eastern Shore of Maryland Director Alan Girard. Photo by Nikki Davis.


For most of us, the word brings to mind white lab coats, microscopes, and Einstein's equations scribbled on a blackboard.

But for the Bay and its critters, science is the very foundation upon which our cooperative effort to restore local waters to health is built.

For the most part, leaders in government know that to keep populations of fish, crabs, and other species productive, science must be our guide.

Take rockfish for example. Declining stocks in the '70s led to intensive study of possible causes. Overfishing and too much pollution were found, and to address the decline, policymakers ultimately prohibited harvests altogether. The major comeback of stripers to the Chesapeake that followed is now heralded as one of the nation's great restoration success stories.

In the mid-'90s, blue crab numbers hovered at dangerously low levels and remained low through most of the beginning of this century. But when population estimates based on scientific measurements of spawning females and young crabs that winter in the Bay's bottom were used to set harvest limits in 2008, crabs began to rebound.

In environmental policy, the value of science—"the study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation" (as Merriam-Webster puts it)—is difficult to discount.

That's why it was somewhat of a surprise this past legislative session in Annapolis when a proposal to have scientists guide establishment of sustainable harvest levels for oysters was met with such resistance.

As introduced, the Sustainable Oyster Population and Fishery Act of 2016 would have required University of Maryland (UMD) scientists to use stock assessments and real data to determine sustainable harvest rates and assess whether the oyster fishery is experiencing overfishing.

The proposal was consistent with state law, which requires that the overfishing of oysters be prevented. In fact, science-based programs are already in place for managing most of the Bay's major fisheries. Yet for the oyster, there are no estimates of sustainable harvest levels. 

That may soon change. Despite opposition from watermen who felt the bill was an attack on them, lawmakers on the last day of session agreed to adopt an amended version. Provisions remain that call for a stock assessment to guide development of biological reference points, as well as a determination as to whether the fishery is operating within those reference points. UMD is still to be involved, but the work will be overseen by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Importantly, the measure now calls for DNR, in collaboration with watermen and groups like CBF, to identify management strategies for maintenance of a sustainable oyster fishery. Those strategies are long overdue. It will be critical for the stakeholders and public to participate in the creation of management strategies to ensure that the future management of oysters stays within the sustainable limits.

It's a win for oysters, the waterways they filter, and the watermen, business owners, and citizens who all benefit from healthy numbers of this precious icon of the Bay. However, the efforts to sustain and expand our oyster population is far from over. This study must be fully funded in order to get underway, and the data it uncovers must guide our future oyster management. 

Bernard Meltzer tells us "if you have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, then you have discovered the secret of getting along—whether it be business, family relations, or life itself." However contentious the debate on fisheries management or most any other environmental policy, science remains our best hope for grounding differing views in objective, fact-based reality.

—Alan Girard
Eastern Shore of Maryland Director
Chesapeake Bay Foundation


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