OysterFutures project kicks off discussions about fishing and restoration

March 22, 2016

A collaborative project to develop consensus on recommendations for oyster fishing practices and restoration in the Choptank and Little Choptank Rivers started off on the right foot at a kick-off meeting February 26-27 at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, Maryland.

The new undertaking, OysterFutures, is a five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation with a goal of bringing a diverse group of stakeholders together from the oyster industry, environmental groups, and government agencies to make recommendations on ways to improve the oyster resource while integrating commercial and restoration interests. 

“The goal of the OysterFutures project is to develop recommendations for oyster policies and management that incorporate science and local knowledge and meet the needs of industry, citizen, and government stakeholders,” said associate professor Elizabeth North of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory.

North is leading a group of scientists who will serve as consultants to the stakeholder group, collecting data, developing projection models, and observing the process. 

At the first meeting, stakeholders discussed initial ideas for improving the oyster resource in the Choptank and Little Choptank Rivers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Professional facilitators guided the group. Many ideas were brought forward and will be discussed at future meetings, including clearer delineation of fishing areas, enhancements in enforcement, changes in public fishing regulations, and improvements in marketing and education.

The majority of the OysterFutures Workgroup are from the oyster industry in Choptank and Little Choptank region, including six watermen, two aquaculturalists, and one seafood buyer. The four citizen group representatives are from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, The Nature Conservancy, and the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center.  epresentatives from the Oyster Recovery Partnership, State (Maryland Department of Natural Resources) and federal agencies (NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office) are also participating.

The overall objective of the OysterFutures program is to test a new way to include stakeholders in natural resource management to help improve the effectiveness and responsiveness of management, as well as the sustainability of the natural resource.

“We’re focusing on oysters because of their importance to Maryland’s economy, cultural heritage, and a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay, and because there is conflict over how to best to restore the oyster resource,” says scientific team member and associate professor Michael Wilberg of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.

Members of the research team presented information on current regulations and restoration activities in the Choptank and Little Choptank Rivers, as well as information on the collaborative model that the scientists and stakeholders will build over the next year. This model will be designed by stakeholders and researchers to forecast how changes in regulations might affect oysters, oyster harvests, and the ecological benefits of oysters, and will be used to help evaluate different strategies for improving the oyster resource.

“Our goal is to integrate on-the-water knowledge and scientific understanding to help the stakeholders find their best path forward,” said Wilberg.

The collaborative model will be developed and evaluated by the Workgroup over its next three meetings and used during a fourth meeting when the stakeholders deliberate and reach agreement on what to recommend for new oyster management strategies, regulations, and restoration policies.

Comments from the meeting include:

“I’m glad everybody is getting along. It’s looking good.”

—Greg Kemp, Vice President of the Talbot County Watermen’s Association

"The group covered a lot of ground in the first meeting and it was good to see that everyone was committed to an open and honest dialog."

—Ward Slacum of Oyster Recovery Partnership

“There was more agreement among diverse stakeholders than I expected, and I’m optimistic that a lot of new ideas and valuable advice on future oyster management will come from the OysterFutures group.”

—David Sikorski, The Chairman of Government Relations for CCA Maryland

“[The meeting] exceeded expectations.”

—Joe Fehrer of The Nature Conservancy

The stakeholder group asked the scientific research team to convene a symposium in the fall of 2016 to bring in experts from other states with public oyster fisheries and large-scale aquaculture programs to learn what other folks are doing and get some ideas about what might work better here in Maryland. 

Following the symposium and the series of four meetings over the next 14 months, the OysterFutures Workgroup will submit their consensus recommendations to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in June 2017.

“Our near-term goal is to provide sound recommendations for enhancing the oyster industry and oyster resource that will work for all major stakeholders in the Choptank and Little Choptank Rivers,” said North. “The ultimate goal of the project is to help establish a stakeholder engagement process that can work across the nation to enhance sustainability of natural resources by maximizing agreement among diverse stakeholders and those entrusted with fisheries management.”

The project is supported with funding from the National Science Foundation’s Coastal Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability program. In addition to being from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, research team members are from Florida State University’s FCRC Consensus Center and Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

For more information on the OysterFutures project, visit https://oysterfutures.wordpress.com/ and www.facebook.com/oysterfutures.

Photo of oyster boats by Jane Hawkey, Integration & Application Network. Oysters in hand by Ben Fertig, Integration & Application Network.