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As Chesapeake Bay Oyster Population Declines, Debate Continues Over How To Help Species Rebound

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- The oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay is in sharp decline, prompting state leaders to try multiple tactics to improve the species' numbers.

A state assessment shows the number of oysters in the bay is down significantly -- cut in half over the past two decades.

"Between 1999 and 2017, oyster populations declined from 600 million to 300 million adult oysters," said Allison Colden with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The morning brings hope for Robert Brown with the Maryland Watermen's Association. As he pulls a fresh pile of oysters from the bay's floor, he keeps some while others are tossed back into the water.

"We need to get shells ... more on the bottom," Brown said.

Watermen on surrounding boats do the same, sending the smaller oysters into the sea so they can grow and repopulate the waters.

Brown said it's a good sign there are so many to throw back in, but not everyone agrees.

"Our waterways are sick; the Chesapeake Bay hit rock bottom," then-Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh said in 2017.

Experts said overfishing is happening in more than half of the bay, but watermen like Brown, for whom fishing is their livelihood, that's not the problem.

"We need to get our waters cleaned up so we can have a thriving industry," he said.

The Maryland General Assembly has passed several measures to help the oyster population, one of which permanently protects five oyster sanctuaries.

Anne Arundel County, meanwhile, kicked off the Maryland Grow Oysters program in 2008, encouraging waterfront property owners to hang cages of baby oysters from their docks.

"I think we've crossed over a tipping point where the bay is starting to heal itself," Schuh said in 2017.

But scientists say the numbers aren't high enough and the state should do more.

"We have the information in hand that we need to make smart management decisions and provide a brighter future for our oyster populations and our oyster fishery," Colden said.

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