Battle brewing in the Chesapeake Bay over oysters

There's a battle brewing in the bay.

It's over a new Maryland law that's supposed to help revive the state's long-declining oyster population, but watermen - and the governor - just aren't buying it.

"A lot of people, they know what an oyster in a jar looks like. They don't know what it takes to grow one, what it takes to harvest one, and get it to where it is," said Willy Dean, the owner of Wild Willy's Seafood, who has been oystering in Maryland for decades and opposes the law.

Here's the root of the problem: according to the state, Maryland's oyster population has plummeted from about 600 million oysters in 1999 to only about 300 million of them as of 2018. So the question becomes - what can be done to turn that trend around?

One idea is to keep watermen like Dean out of certain areas, called oyster sanctuaries. Five sanctuaries that were established back in 2010 were made permanent when lawmakers passed the new legislation. But Dean, like most watermen, doesn't think the idea will work. Instead he favors rotational harvesting, where oysters in certain areas are only taken once every few years, giving reefs a chance to recover.

"If we go in a sanctuary we're gonna have limitations, Dean said. "We know that and we don't mind limitations."

But some say limitations just aren't enough.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost strongly supported the new legislation and said that oysters produce significant ecological benefits that will help the whole bay.

"Oysters are kind of that species that all of the other ones rely on," she explained. "They provide the habitat, they clean the water so if we don't have a strong oyster population, we're not gonna see the bay's health improve. They go hand in hand."

Prost added that areas where restoration work is already underway, like Harris Creek, are thriving, although that point is disputed by Dean.

"We're not in it to do away with the harvest," Prost said. "We're not looking to change the face of the eastern shore."

She also said that while the new legislation is a step in the right direction, it's going to take a long time - probably decades - to get the bay's oyster population back to where both the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and watermen like Dean would like it to be.