Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sanctuary Swap For Oystermen?

DEAL ISLAND -- Somerset County watermen are protesting a state plan to create oyster sanctuaries in the Manokin and Nanticoke rivers -- a measure that would ban them from working the productive oyster bottoms.

"It's one of the areas where we can finally make a living on," said Danny Webster of Deal Island. "It's frustrating."

The two rivers were not originally set aside as sanctuaries under an oyster restoration plan announced by Gov. Martin O'Malley in December, but were created to take the place of one near Smith Island, said Frank Dawson, an assistant secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources.

When the plan was introduced, watermen objected to the sanctuary proposed for the highly productive area near the island, so DNR officials swapped it for areas in the Manokin and Nanticoke, Dawson said.

But at a recent public hearing on the state oyster plan, some watermen expressed interest in going back to the original proposal to place the sanctuary in the Tangier Sound, he said.

"We hope to hear back from them," Dawson said. "We hope they can come together with some sort of consensus."

Webster said Somerset watermen are consulting with oystermen in Dorchester County, who work in some of the same waters, to come up with a proposal on which they can all agree.

Delegate Carolyn Elmore, R-38A-Wicomico, said she attended a recent meeting of the Somerset County Watermen's Association during which the issue was discussed.

"Their concerns are this is already written in stone," she said.

Webster said he and other watermen are anxious about the possible creation of sanctuaries in rivers that have been making a comeback in recent years.

"We're scared to death," he said. "We don't know if we're going to be making a living or not."

DNR officials are open to going back to the original proposal for a sanctuary off Smith Island, if that's what watermen want, said Tom O'Connell, DNR's director of fisheries.

Since January, DNR has held public meetings throughout the state to gather input from watermen and other stakeholders on the plan, which uses a three-prong approach for oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay.

"It's been a very challenging process for us," O'Connell said.

In addition to creating sanctuaries, the plan includes opening part of the bay for commercial aquaculture and maintaining 167,720 acres of oyster bars for harvest by watermen.

On Sunday, O'Malley plans to join other state, regional and university leaders to dedicate a new $11 million facility at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory in Dorchester County that will allow the lab to double its annual production of oyster spat for Chesapeake Bay restoration.

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