CENTREVILLE — The Queen Anne’s County Board of Commissioners penned a letter to Democratic candidate for governor and Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot expressing their “deep concern” regarding Franchot’s potential plans to reshape the oyster industry.

Stating their pride in “our hardworking watermen” and the “work they do preserve and protect” the Chesapeake Bay, the commissioners challenged the gubernatorial candidate’s publicized intentions to eliminate the wild oyster fishery.

“We suggest taking a step back from the idea of phasing out wild oyster harvesting,” the letter said. “We strongly encourage you to meet with and consult our (watermen) to get the full perspective of what these hard-working people do for a living.”

Addressing the county Waterman’s Association President Troy Wilkins and Delmarva Fisheries Association Chairman Robert Newberry, Commissioner Phil Dumenil said the letter that was signed during the board’s Nov. 9 meeting was a “softened” draft.

In August, Franchot said that if elected governor in 2022, he would encourage the development of aquaculture — the breeding and harvesting of oysters in leased water bottoms — while phasing out commercial oystering.

The campaign promise enraged watermen across the state, including Newberry.

“If they did to the farmers what they do to these watermen every day, Annapolis would be lined with green tractors every day,” Newberry said during the commission meeting.

The debate and emotion surrounding the comptroller’s plan intensified after Franchot wrote an op-ed in the September edition of the Waterman’s Gazette, a monthly magazine published by the Maryland Watermen’s Association. In it, Franchot doubled down on his endorsement of aquaculture, saying he sees the practice “as the more lucrative future for oyster harvesting.”

“The wild oyster fishery faces a daunting future, both environmentally and culturally,” Franchot said in the op-ed. “The cost of wild harvesting continues to climb and the return on investment continues to decline.”

Though aquaculture currently makes up less than half of the country’s imported seafood, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as an industry, it is expected to grow. A 2020 economic analysis from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found that between 2013 and 2018, the aquaculture oyster industry in Maryland had grown an average 24 percent annually.

Newberry, who represents at least 80 percent of the watermen in the state, said he will continue to challenge Franchot’s campaign for governor.

“We’ve got a hard fight coming ahead of us. It’s going to get ugly. It’s going to get really ugly,” he said.

When asked for a response to the letter from the QA commissioners, Franchot replied, “The livelihoods of our commercial watermen depend upon a bountiful, healthy Chesapeake Bay, and there’s no greater way to achieve this goal than to significantly increase the population of one of the Bay’s top filter, the oyster. I am fully committed to ensuring the future of oyster harvesting through traditional commercial methods, as well as aquaculture.

“As I have stated previously, 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.

“Our state has a long history of bringing all stakeholders together to find collaborative solutions to this enormous challenge of restoring the Bay and oysters. I believe the traditions and heritage of the watermen and the commercial harvest are critically important to the future’s innovative restoration process. We need their experience, knowledge and voices to achieve our collective goals. I look forward to working with our watermen, scientists, policymakers at all levels of government, and advocates to secure a stronger environmental and economic future for our Bay, and the Marylanders and communities that depend on it,” Franchot concluded.

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