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Oyster population rises in Maryland

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s oyster population has more than doubled since 2010 due to high oyster survival over the past few years and strong reproduction in the Chesapeake Bay, according to the state’s 2013 fall oyster survey.

The survey released by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said the oyster population is at its highest point since this type of monitoring began in 1985.

“Preliminary harvest reports for the past season have already surpassed 400,000 bushels — with a dockside value in excess of $13 million — the highest in at least 15 years,” said DNR Secretary Joe Gill. “Coupled with the survey results, we have reason to be cautiously optimistic a sustainable oyster population can once again play a vital role in the bay’s ecosystem and Maryland’s economy.”

The bay’s oyster population has been stuck at less than 1 percent of historic levels since 1994. Researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science concluded in 2011 that the state’s oyster population was just 0.3 percent of its abundance in the early 1800s. The decline is attributed to heavy fishing that began in the late 1800s, disease and depletion of oyster habitat.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has made oyster restoration a priority, announced a development plan last fall. The state has increased its network of oyster sanctuaries from 9 percent to 24 percent of remaining habitat. Maryland also planted a record 1.25 billion native spat in the state last year. The plan also focused on increasing enforcement and penalties to protect the state’s investment in oyster restoration.

“These survey results indicate that our multi-pronged strategy to restore our native oyster population is paying off,” O’Malley said. “While this progress is noteworthy, it underscores the need to stay the course, reinforcing our commitment to protect our investment and rebuild this essential, iconic species.”