Deadlock in Maryland oyster restoration program lands in Annapolis

The fate of Maryland’s efforts to restore large-scale oyster beds is at an impasse.

The state cut oyster restoration efforts on the Eastern Shore last month after boats ran aground on reefs built with stone and man-made materials — a decision that could have significant impact on the future of a multiyear project to restore oysters to the Chesapeake Bay.

Now the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are insisting those substrates — an alternative to oyster shell in building the reefs — are integral to the project. Watermen, meanwhile, say the sanctuary project is to blame for a continued decline in oyster harvests.

The dispute could come to a head Monday, when the state’s Oyster Advisory Commission meets in Annapolis. The foundation, watermen, researchers and corps engineers will discuss the future of oyster restoration with the Department of Natural Resources.

Tom Zolper, a spokesman for the Annapolis-based foundation, said the decision on the Eastern Shore is a sign that oyster restoration in Maryland is stalling. Substrate is the state’s only option if it wants to continue building reefs, considered crucial to improving the oyster population and water quality in the bay, he said.

“There just isn't enough shell anymore,” he said. “We learned our lesson with the last accident. The whole oyster restoration in Maryland shouldn’t be stopped because of one issue.”

Jeff Harrison, Talbot County Watermen’s Association president, begs to differ.

He said shell has been available for centuries at Man-O-War Shoal near the mouth of the Patapsco River, the state’s last, large natural oyster reef. Watermen have been trying for about nine years to get a permit to take them. He said he’s hoping watermen can dig there in a couple years.

While he admitted that shell is difficult to acquire, he called it the best material for building reefs.

“Last year, the harvest dropped down about 35 (percent) to 40 percent and it will probably be the same this year, if not more,” he said. “Sanctuaries are supposed to be helping the industry. We’re not seeing a big influx of spat. We’re not sure what they’re doing is helping any.”

Large oyster sanctuaries on the Eastern Shore are among five planned to be built as part of a federal-state agreement to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The Severn and South rivers in Anne Arundel County are candidates for the remaining two sanctuaries, but five months after an advisory panel passed off the decision to Maryland Secretary of Natural Resources Mark Belton, no selection has been made.

The oyster project, which grows and plants oysters on man-made beds in protected waterways, has been touted by environmentalists and generally opposed by watermen. Numerous agencies have agreed to a long-term goal of growing oysters on at least 50 percent of restorable oyster habitat.

Zolper said pressure from the watermen and lack of oyster shell for new sanctuaries have brought the selection for the next two restoration sites to a standstill.

Among those at Monday’s meeting will be Col. Ed Camberlayne, commander of the corps in Maryland. He is expected to discuss the performance of substrates so far, but also put pressure on the state to move forward with their use.

Donald Boesch, the recently retired head of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, will also be present at the meeting.

“The Oyster Advisory Commission has been meeting for well over a year now, and we seem to be stuck,” he said.

Boesch will present information from a study published in October on oyster restoration in North Carolina that he said should shed light on the future of Maryland’s oysters. While the restoration in North Carolina uses shell instead of substrate, the oyster species and salinity of the oysters are the same as Maryland’s.

In North Carolina, areas that are restored collect 12 times the amount of oyster larvae than unrestored areas. The oysters in areas where harvesting is prevented grow to about eight times that of those in restored harvested areas. Larger oysters are the ones that reproduce — what Boesch calls the “mamas and the papas.”

“This is just one more bit of evidence that these protected restoration sites have a huge impact,” he said. “If the goal is to have more oysters in the bay, we need more mamas and papas producing oysters..”

Boesch said watermen want to halt restoration because they can’t reap the benefits directly, and that boat damage can be readily avoided.

“The watermen are raising a number of issues that seem, to me after listening to them for over a year, based on the premise that they don’t want us to put these sanctuaries in place and they don’t want restoration done that they can’t harvest themselves,” he said.

Guy Spurry, a Talbot county waterman who said he is one of the last few hauling oyster shells for Maryland restoration programs, said he wouldn’t mind if the state uses substrate for restoration. But he said studies like the one in North Carolina won’t help oysters progress.

“We had it way better 10 years ago than what we have now in terms of number of oysters. It’s all Mother Nature,” Spurry said. “My business is about making money and I’ve benefited from these restoration projects before, but as far as things getting better, I don’t see it happening.”

A construction error in Harris Creek — Maryland’s first large-scale oyster restoration site — caused damage to multiple boats, as vessels grounded or scraped against stone-based reefs that did not meet 5 feet of navigational clearance, officials said.

Skeptical of oyster restoration from the start, watermen have complained of trotlines getting stuck in new stone river bottoms and boats being damaged by oyster reef “high spots” in Harris Creek. A trotline is a long, heavy fishing line with short, baited lines suspended from it. They are often used to catch blue crabs in Maryland.

Harrison said restoration efforts have hurt watermen.

“The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, I don’t think they’re going to be happy unless there are no watermen left,” Harrison said. “The crabs and oysters don’t come ashore by themselves and there’s very few of us left. When we’re all gone and you have to pay $500 for a bushel of crabs and $5 a piece for oysters, they'll miss us then. But that’s another story, I guess.”

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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