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Maryland chooses St. Mary's waterways for oyster investment, continues to explore sanctuary harvest

State natural resources officials released an oyster restoration plan Friday calling for new investment in some Chesapeake Bay waterways, and potentially one day allowing watermen periodic access to harvest inside oyster sanctuaries.

The Department of Natural Resources is recommending Breton Bay and the upper St. Mary’s River, both tributaries of the Potomac River in St. Mary’s County, as sites for intensive oyster restoration work.

Officials said they also are moving forward with controversial planning for what they call rotational harvesting, when oyster bars that have been cordoned off as sanctuaries could sometimes be opened to watermen.

A state law passed in April without Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature prohibits watermen from dredging or tonging oysters inside sanctuaries at least until the end of next year, when an ongoing study of oyster populations and reproduction rates is completed. Lawmakers introduced the measure in an effort to nip the administration’s talk of rotational harvesting in the bud.

Natural resources officials said they are honoring that law, but also moving forward with plans that could allow rotational harvesting to proceed come 2019 if the population study finds that it’s feasible.

The Hogan administration has stressed the importance of both restoring the bay’s oyster population — estimated at less than 1 percent of pre-Colonial levels because of disease and overfishing — and protecting and boosting the state’s seafood industry.

“These restoration recommendations strike the right balance between the environment and the economy by concentrating limited yet targeted resources on existing sanctuaries with the most potential for success, based on the best available science,” natural resources Secretary Mark Belton said.

The selection of the St. Mary’s waterways for oyster restoration is a long-awaited move to fulfill an agreement Maryland made with the other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in 2014. The state committed to restoring native oyster habitat and populations in five bay tributaries by 2025.

The other three are Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River and the Tred Avon River, all tributaries of the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore. Nearly $50 million had been spent in those tributaries through last year to build reefs and seed them with baby oysters.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation criticized the selection of Breton Bay, saying it could be difficult and expensive to successfully restore oyster populations there. Alison Prost, the foundation’s Maryland executive director, said the waterway has a bad track record with oyster growth because it is low in salinity, a factor that hinders the bivalves’ reproduction.

But she said the foundation agrees with the selection of the Upper St. Mary’s, and is relieved to see restoration efforts advancing.

“We are pleased after months of uncertainty about whether large-scale restoration would continue in Maryland to see today's announcement,” she said. “We are encouraged the Hogan administration is committed to oyster restoration and is going to follow through with Maryland's oyster restoration commitments.”

Separately, the Department of Natural Resources said it plans to study oyster sanctuaries around Annapolis and the Lower Eastern Shore to explore how new state investment could help with oyster growth in those areas. Officials said they will look at seeding reefs in the Severn, Manokin and Nanticoke rivers with lab-grown oyster larvae or oyster shells on which larvae have already planted, known as spat.

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