The state of Maryland is seeking to put the brakes on an oyster restoration project on the Eastern Shore, dismaying environmentalists who fear a delay could hinder efforts to boost oyster populations.
Earlier this year, crews began building artificial reefs on the Tred Avon River in Talbot County to provide new homes for lab-created baby oysters. The work is planned to continue until there are enough new reefs to support a thriving oyster population.
But Department of Natural Resources officials confirmed Thursday that they are asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of putting down rock to create the reefs, to place the project on hold.
The state first wants to finish an overall review of oyster restoration efforts, expected to be completed in July, according to DNR spokesman Stephen Schatz.
Officials with the Corps of Engineers could not be reached for comment Thursday. Federal employees worked a half-day for the Christmas Eve holiday.
The possibility of a delay has worried the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Officials there were under the impression that oyster restoration work would keep going even as the state's review of oyster projects was conducted.
"Its study wasn't supposed to block work already underway. This delay would come in the middle of a project that was designed with public input, including watermen," said Alison Prost, the bay foundation's Maryland executive director.
The Tred Avon is one of three rivers targeted for intensive oyster projects as part of the multistate effort to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Extensive work creating artificial reefs has been completed in Harris Creek, and work also is being done on the Little Choptank River.
This spring, the Corps of Engineers built 24 acres of 1-foot-deep reefs in the Tred Avon, a 17-mile-long waterway that spills into the bay near Oxford. There are plans to eventually create 147 acres of artificial oyster reefs in the Tred Avon.
Oysters are filter-feeders that are prized for their ability to filter impurities from water. When populations are strong, oysters build reefs that provide habitat for fish, crabs and other animals in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.
But disease, overharvesting and habitat loss have taken their toll, and the bay's oyster population is just 1 percent of its historic levels. How to restore the oyster population has been an ongoing debate among regulators, environmentalists and the watermen who make a living from harvesting and selling the shellfish.
Five years ago, then-Gov. Martin O'Malley announced a sweeping oyster plan that doubled the number of oyster sanctuaries that are off-limits to harvesting, encouraged the practice of oyster farming and pledged a multimillion-dollar effort to plant baby oysters on newly built reefs.
The DNR study due in July aims to revaluate those efforts.
Prost said oyster restoration work should continue even as the department completes its study.
"No one aspect of the state's oyster plan should be singled out for delay," she said.