Groups begin project's 'big push' by planting first of 50 million oysters in Severn River

E.B. Furgurson III
Contact Reporterpfurgurson@capgaznews.com

Ten million microscopic baby oysters were planted in the Severn River Monday, a main ingredient in efforts to help restore the Chesapeake Bay.

They are the first batch of a total of 50 million to be placed in the oyster sanctuary outside Annapolis in the coming weeks. The oyster spat were hauled north from the Horn Point Oyster Hatchery outside Cambridge early Monday and just after noon the first of them were washed over the side of the Robert Lee, the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s oyster planting vessel.

The project is a cooperative effort between ORP, the Severn River Association, Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and Horn Point — but also the general public, who donated approximately $27,000 to help the local river group pay for half of the oysters laid on the river bottom Monday.

“SRA and ORP are taking this bold step to re-populate the Severn River because our river and creeks are hurting,” SRA president Lynne Rockenbauch said. “To make sure we can fish and swim in our river and creeks, we need to take action now.”

And that is why SRA reached out to the community. Bob Whitcomb, the SRA Oyster Committee chair, said Monday “proves private citizens support our restoration efforts and will donate to buy oysters to plant on our reefs.”

But they have been involved for years, growing oysters off piers from spat to more mature oysters that have been planted on reefs in the river. “We plant about a million oysters a year. But this is a big push we are proud of,” Whitcomb said.

The Severn was chosen for a few reasons. Salinity levels vital to oyster development are sufficient. The bottom, especially in the nine sites spread across 13 acres of river,was “planted” with crushed rock by the U.S..Army Corps of Engineers in 2010, providing an optimal base for the spat to flourish.

Of the 50 million spat to be planted about 2.5 million are likely to survive to become three- to five-inch mature oysters.

Shocking, but that’s normal, said Chris Judy, director of the DNR Shellfish Division.

“People say that mortality rate is high, but it’s typical. If you are a very small vulnerable spat to make it to 3 or 5 years old is a challenge. A lot of things can kill you along the way.”

That is one reason the site will be monitored to determine the mortality rate and whether a second planting, which occurs on many oyster beds, is in order.

“We strive to do our best to monitor all of our plantings,” said Ward Slacum, ORP’s director of program. “We will check right after we put them in to understand short term survival and also several years later to understand what it still there. It’s adaptive management and it also determines whether a second planting is necessary”

Then it is up to timing and funding to see if a second planting is possible, he added.

Oyster restoration efforts like Monday’s Severn River project are a key ingredient in wider Chesapeake Bay recovery efforts.

The ability by oysters to filter and clean water is a major factor in the push to grow more oysters on reefs across the bay and in its tributaries. A mature adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons a day.

But just as important is the ecosystem a thriving oyster reef creates.

“As they grow, they attract other creatures. You are not just getting oysters you are getting worms … mussels, barnacles,mud crabs, blue crabs,” Judy said. “As important as the filtering is the improvement of the bottom ecology, The living reef they make is crucial to marine life.”

As such it is not likely that the successful development of flourishing oyster reefs will clean the bay in and of themselves.

“They are a vital ingredient. But it also about land use, how you manage your garden and lawn, how you fertilize it and farmers doing their part,” Judy said.

Yet it is an important cog in the wheel of bay health.

“The sites we planted today between the two bridges were planted a decade ago with substrate by the Army Corps and could build up a viable population to filter the river and develop valuable marine life for other species,” ORC executive director Stephan Abel said. “They are critical to have and every tributary should have viable oysters.”

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
77°