Maryland Watermen's Association

Comptroller Franchot's Thoughts on Oysters and the Chesapeake Bay

Public service is an educational experience that never ends.

That’s certainly the case when it comes to Maryland’s oyster industry. Even after four decades of public service, I learn new things whenever I meet with watermen, scientists, environmentalists and other stakeholders who care deeply about the Chesapeake Bay. In many cases, their livelihoods depend on the health, viability and water quality of this precious natural resource.

Disease and pollution have decimated the Bay’s most critical filter - the Chesapeake oyster. Without a clear and collaborative plan to restore and properly manage the oyster population, the billions of dollars spent on Bay cleanup efforts will not yield the best outcome.

Throughout my tenure in elected office, first as a legislator and now as Comptroller, I have strongly advocated for the protection and restoration of this keystone species. I have visited numerous seafood houses and restaurants all around the Bay to promote the oyster shell recycling tax credit.

I thought I knew a lot about oysters. It turns out I have much more to learn.

For example, I recently heard about the continued struggle by watermen building their aquaculture businesses to obtain affordable oyster shells to grow spat, or “baby” oysters. I was surprised that Maryland has multiple locations of abundant shell that could be used to help watermen build a more sustainable population through aquaculture. At present, most watermen buy their shell from Virginia and at higher prices that hurt their ability to increase production of our critically needed oyster population.

There is a great deal of interdependence between commercial oyster harvesters and the booming aquaculture industry. We should embrace all opportunities that carry mutual benefit, rather than looking through the lens of wins and losses.

Maryland has a long history of bringing all stakeholders around the policy table to find innovative and collaborative solutions to our biggest environmental challenges. I hope we can continue this tradition to safely open more areas of the Bay to shell harvesting in an environmentally sound way to increase aquaculture production, which many, myself included, see as the more lucrative future for oyster harvesting.

The wild oyster fishery faces a daunting future, both environmentally and culturally. The cost of wild harvesting continues to climb and the return on investment continues to decline. The next generations of watermen are pondering less demanding and more lucrative career paths, as early mornings on the water and long, physically arduous days have less appeal.

Just as the energy and automobile industries have turned towards renewables and electric vehicles, respectively, Maryland watermen are finding new ways to enhance their tradition of supplying delicious oysters to our tables through techniques like aquaculture. I fully support this effort and the multiple ways this industry can flourish sustainably.

I look forward to the days ahead that combine state-of-the-art, innovative thinking and technology that combines the knowledge, traditions and heritage of the watermen community to help the oyster population rebound. The future will need all voices and experiences to achieve success as the industry evolves.

As Governor, I will engage all stakeholders who have shared interest in our oyster fishery. I will find ways to streamline and reduce paperwork, improve electronic reporting, and combine leases to improve efficiency for aquaculture. We can do this while safeguarding the environment and protecting water quality. The faster we can grow healthy oysters through aquaculture, the faster the native population will replenish and with it, water quality will improve.

I will work with the conservation community and the commercial industry to find sustainable ways to increase shell harvesting safely, locally and affordably. We will ban the disposal of oyster shells in Maryland landfills. We will expand the safe import of shell from other states just as we safely import their seafood for consumption. I will continue to promote the excellent work of our conservation organizations and significantly increase oyster shell recycling investments and opportunities, as well as expand and increase the credits that help reduce taxes for doing the right thing environmentally.

The Bay benefits from the outstanding efforts of conservation groups, as well as the hard work and dedication of our watermen who have a financial interest in its restoration.

As we head toward October’s opening of oyster season, I extend my best wishes to the watermen for a safe, bountiful harvest and cooperative weather. Together, through advances in science, collaborative partnership and good governance, we will save and restore the Chesapeake oyster fishery and with it, the Chesapeake Bay.

Peter Franchot
State of Maryland