The mound of oyster shells rose 20 feet above the deck of a 72-foot barge Wednesday afternoon, ready to plunge into the depths of the Severn River.
As it positioned itself in the waters off Chinks Point, the oyster-planting barge Robert Lee opened its side rails and pumped hundreds of thousands of oyster shells covered in millions of thumbprint-sized juvenile oysters into the river with a high-powered hose, a process known as “washing.” GPS trackers attached to some of the shells ensure they are landing in the right locations to take root on the reef below.
This is the fourth consecutive year that the Severn River Association and the Oyster Recovery Partnership Operation have partnered on the Build-a-Reef campaign, an ongoing effort to repopulate the Severn River and other waterways leading to the Chesapeake Bay with oysters. The baby oysters are planted in local sanctuaries like the Severn River and are closed to harvesting so they can grow and multiply, enriching the ecosystem. By fostering young oysters, they are generating an abundance of aquatic life and cleaner bay waters.
“Severn River Association’s goal is to plant at least 25 million oysters each year. We want to do more than that though,” said Jesse Iliff, executive director for Severn River Association. On Wednesday, Iliff and other environmental and political leaders hosted a news conference outside the Annapolis Maritime Museum to discuss the ongoing repopulation project.
Operation Build-a-Reef’s work to restore Maryland waterways has been a hard-fought battle since the project started in 2018. After salinity concerns that occurred after high rainfall in 2019 and the coronavirus pandemic interrupting operations two years ago, it’s a relief to have things running smoothly now, said Ward Slacum, executive director of Oyster Recovery Partnership. Since 1993, Slacum’s organization has planted more than 9 billion oysters.
“One of our goals is to restore the oyster here in Maryland and we’re fortunate to have the tools and resources,” Slacum said.
The planting effort is essential to the continued growth of the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay and by extension crucial to the survival of other animals and organisms that inhabit the rivers and bay after decades of overfishing caused precipitous declines in annual oyster hauls.
Signs that oyster planting may be working have begun to emerge. Maryland watermen sold more than half a million bushels of wild oysters last winter, more than they have since 1987, according to preliminary state data. It’s a positive sign for a species known for dangerous population swings in recent decades. Organizers have said survival rates for the oysters planted by the Build-a-Reef program have exceeded 80%, lending proof that the effort is aiding in the recovery.
Among the attendees Wednesday were Del. Dana Jones and state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, two Democrats who represent Annapolis in the General Assembly. Both have successfully overseen the passage of oyster-related legislation, including a bill appropriating millions in state funding aimed at protecting and bolstering the oyster population over the next five years.
“This past legislative session was a banner year, and we’re going to see the fruits of that banner year right here on the Severn River,” Jones said. “We passed the largest investment into oyster recovery that the state has ever done. We’re going to have healthier water quality, we’re going to see a cleaner bay, and it’s due to the great work being done at all levels.”
The continued backing by state and local governments is critical to the initiative, Iliff said, but community support is needed to finish the job.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman was represented at the event by County Budget Officer Chris Trumbauer, who said he was excited to be a part of the efforts to combat environmental degradation, caused in part by climate change.
“We hear a lot in the environmental space about climate change, about doom and gloom, about upcoming disaster, so it’s important to have days like today where we celebrate success and optimism,” Trumbauer said.
“With help from these great organizations and other state and local partners, we’re going to make this river a little bit better, we’re going to make this bay better, bit by bit, one step at a time. That’s how we will continue this battle for our environment.”