The Carroll County Board of Commissioners intend to join three Eastern Shore counties in their efforts to persuade federal and state agencies to allow watermen to dredge as part of an effort to restore the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay. Restoring oysters, they say, is a better way to clean the Bay than other, more high-profile methods like stormwater management regulation.
The Clean Chesapeake Coalition, an organization of 10 counties including Carroll, believes its proposed methods of cleaning up the Bay are both more cost-effective and efficient than strategies such as the stormwater management regulations mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Oysters are natural filters of harmful pollutants, said Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4.
Oysters have long been seen as potentially part of a solution for cleaning the Bay, as the primary pollutant affecting the estuary is an excess of nutrients. Nutrients cause algae blooms, and excess nutrients cause unusually large blooms that consume oxygen, to the detriment of fish, shellfish and other aquatic life. Oysters are filter feeders that consume algae, and it is believed in the era when they were much more prevalent in the estuary that they helped keep the waterway clean.
Stricter regulation of stormwater runoff into the Bay and its tributaries is seen as a way to reduce the amount of nutrient pollution getting into the Bay. Stormwater mitigation has taken on a high-profile status in recent years since the state, prompted by the federal government, levied a fee on paved and other impervious surfaces with proceeds from the fee — often referred to as the "rain tax" to be allocated for stormwater mitigation efforts.
Carroll's commissioners signed a letter Oct. 23 stating their intent to join Dorchester, Kent and Caroline counties in partnering with the Clean Chesapeake Coalition to engage in a process called coordination with multiple government agencies, including the EPA and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The effort seeks to focus on restoring oysters, rather than regulating stormwater, as a primary way of cleaning up the Bay.
The letter signed by Carroll County officials advocates persuading federal and state agencies to allow watermen to engage in oyster restoration efforts in the Chesapeake.
Two years worth of research by the coalition has shown the same amount of pollutants can be removed from waterways by replenishing the Bay's oyster population through the work of watermen at 1 percent of the cost of other methods, Rothschild said.
Currently, Rothschild said it costs Carroll County $2,000 per pound of pollutants removed from the Chesapeake Bay using existing methods.
Kent County Commissioner Ron Fithian, a Democrat, said the coalition seeks to make state and federal agencies aware of the economic impact their laws have had on local jurisdictions.
When state and federal agencies failed to involve local governments in their decision making, they also missed out on tapping the substantial knowledge and experience of Chesapeake watermen, Fithian said. He had been a waterman for 27 years before becoming involved in politics and said he believes the commercial fishermen could have provided important insight on Bay restoration methods using oysters.
"We think we have some better ideas to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and restore the oyster population and to do it cheaper," Fithian said.
He also said one of the most significant aspects of what the coalition is doing is successfully negotiating across party lines.
"The bipartisan effort has been incredible," he said. "When I first sat down across from Rothschild at the table, I can say I didn't like his policies that much and I think he felt the same about me. Since working together toward the same goal, I consider him one of my best friends and I have a great deal of respect for him."
Kent County Commissioner Wayne Pickrum, a Democrat, said, however, he has fears the coalition may not be doing its due diligence in researching solutions with regard to the oyster restoration issue.
"When the coalition was originally initiated, I viewed it as an effort to avoid their responsibility to meet [state and federal requirements] and I was very reluctant to support it," Pickrum said.
He said the coalition needs to take a holistic approach to the problem of cleaning up the Bay, looking at every aspect of both the organization's proposed methods and those of the Department of Natural Resources.
The coordination process
Coordination is a government-to-government attempt to resolve, without litigation, conflicts that resulted from regulations being handed down by the state and federal governments.
Congress realized giving federal agencies unlimited regulatory powers created certain risks for smaller jurisdictions, so it enacted the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 to protect counties and municipalities from regulations that are found to be unfair, Rothschild said.
The coordination to take place is hoped to give the counties involved the opportunity to pursue cleaning up the Bay while also saving taxpayer money, he said.
According to a previous Times article, Fred Kelly Grant, the man who initially advised Carroll County on the possibility of taking part in the coordination effort, said he has been involved in 108 cases where coordination had been implemented, with varying degrees of success. Grant also said local jurisdictions had avoided costly litigation thanks to coordination.
The coordination process could be a lengthy one, Rothschild said, but necessary to implement cost-effective methods.
Dredging the Conowingo Dam, oyster sanctuaries
A U.S. Geological Survey study conducted in 1998 suggested Conowingo Dam on the lower Susquehanna River has effectively been used to trap sediment and related pollutants, but it may reach its capacity before 2020, thereby reducing or eliminating its ability to cut the nutrient and sediment loads that reach the Bay.
Though oysters are capable of eliminating pollutants in the Bay, when these pollutants coalesce and form sludge and sediment, they end up being choked, and killed off.
Rothschild said a major contributing factor to the sludge build-up in the Bay is the Conowingo Dam, which spans the Susquehanna between Harford and Cecil counties.
"Every year, approximately 338 million pounds of nitrogen reach the Bay from its tributaries, and about half comes from the dam," Rothschild said.
In order to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the sediment that has built up over the years upriver of Conowingo Dam needs to be dredged to remove the sludge, Rothschild said.
Dorchester County Councilman Tom Bradshaw, a Republican, said when the DNR, which spearheads the state's efforts to restore the oyster population in the Bay, created a series of sanctuaries throughout the Bay and its tributaries — including Harris Creek and Choptank River along Kent, Caroline and Dorchester counties' borders — the agency further restricted the areas watermen could take oysters.
Bradshaw said the general consensus among watermen is that power dredging these sanctuaries would help cultivate the oyster population in the Bay.
"An oyster bed is like a field or garden; if you don't cultivate it they die," he said. "These sanctuaries have silted over and haven't been dredged so the oysters settle down in the silt and they are nearing the end of their life."
Furthermore, Bradshaw said, the experience of watermen proves that dredging can be successful.
"One of the areas here ... [the DNR] allowed watermen to power dredge several years ago," Bradshaw said. "Last year I was told by several watermen that oyster bar has grown from two to six acres."
Based on the experience of watermen, the Coalition believes the best method of restoring the oyster population in the Bay is to allow watermen to dredge.
Oyster dredging techniques vary, but the coalition proposes mass power bag dredging, which uses a rake to sift through silt, capturing oysters in a mesh bag attached while any loose sediment is filtered out through the mesh.
Coalition's criticism of DNR
Chip MacLeod, a lawyer who has been hired by the coalition to conduct research, said the oyster sanctuary in Harris Creek in Talbot County, cost $31 million to cultivate. If watermen are given access to these sanctuaries, not only will it further increase the oyster populations, he said, but it will save millions of taxpayer dollars.
He also said the notion that cultivating sanctuaries, one of the programs run by the Department of Natural Resources, will have a positive impact on oyster populations in the Bay belies common sense.
"If you talk to watermen, whatever oysters that land on top of the sediment in these sanctuaries are done for," MacLeod said.
The oysters need clean substrate, defined as the earthy substance that exists at the bottom of a marine habitat, in order to set, he said.
"And the sediment and pollutants already there make that impossible," he said.
The coalition claims the DNR's programs will not be successful. In a letter addressed to DNR regulatory staff dated Oct. 6 of this year, Fithian makes several claims that the DNR's attempts to cultivate and restore the oyster population in the Bay are "doomed to failure."
The state produced and planted 1.25 billion baby oysters — or spat — into the waterways of Maryland in 2013. This was the first time that a hatchery had produced more than one billion eastern oyster spat in a single season.
The coalition claims spat produced in laboratories will not be able to set in the substrate of waterways due to several conditions. The hatchery conditions are far more pristine than natural environments, and the water the spat grow in is filtered and oxygenated. The temperature is also controlled to provide for advantageous growth and the diseases in the hatchery environment do not mimic the diseases in the wild.
The coalition said an oyster status survey conducted by the DNR and released in August supports those claims. In the report, the spatfall intensity index, which measures the number of new oysters recruited to sanctuaries and acts as an indicator for a potential increase in population, fell drastically in 2013.
On average, the study showed the spatfall intensity for 2013 was 22.7 spat per bushel, a significant drop from the previous year's index of 59.9 spat per bushel.
The letter also criticizes the DNR's attempt to increase the habitable area of oysters in Maryland waterways by adding substrate from other parts of the country, such as Florida. The coalition attests there is no preliminary testing that shows foreign substrate will provide a suitable habitat for spat to set.
Finally, the coalition claims the DNR's aquaculture program, which leases areas of Maryland waterways to certain fishermen, is illegal. The state holds the waters of the Bay and its tributaries in public trust for the citizens of Maryland, according to the letter. It cannot lease areas to private individuals because that infringes the rights of other fishermen who have equal right to access these areas.
Mike Naylor, shellfish program director for the DNR, said to restore native oysters to their normal abundance, sanctuaries needed to be created.
"We had broad legislative support which resulted in the permanent protection of 24 percent of the Bay's habitat," Naylor said. "With a sanctuary, you take areas of the Bay and you make them off limits to fishing activities so there is no longer harvesting stress on oysters."
Due to the large amounts of pollutants and sediment that enter the Bay and its tributaries, it is impossible to recreate the pristine conditions that existed in pre-colonial times in the sanctuaries, the Coalition claims.
As evidence, the Coalition again cites the oyster status survey. The biomass index of these sanctuaries, which measures the growth of the oyster populations over time, is extremely low. Additionally, the oysters in Harris Creek suffer from a disease that devastated the oyster population in the past. Failure to allow dredging in these sanctuaries has resulted in an older average population, which becomes more susceptible to disease, the Coalition says.
Dredging may not be helpful
A report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast Fisheries Science Center in 2011 cites a study conducted in 1985 which "observed little damage to oyster communities associated with mechanical harvesting." Another study in the report, conducted in 2004, showed "the increased efficiency of capture associated with repeated dredging may reduce overall impacts of fishing on oyster beds." And yet another study from 1996 claimed "shellfish cultivation practices can enhance oyster settlement and increase overall productivity."
However, the DNR notes the NOAA report was a review of the ecological effects of dredging and cited just as many studies indicating dredging does more harm than good.
A study conducted in 1994 said "long term harvesting of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, first by hand and later with dredges, leveled the profile of oyster bars, contributing to a reduction in oyster productivity." A study from 1996 stated a "reduction in the height of oyster reefs can alter hydrodynamics [the study of liquids in motion] and impact oyster recruitment, growth, and survival." Three separate studies, conducted in 2000, 2001 and 2005 all reached the same conclusion: "removal of substrate by oyster dredging can scatter shells and oysters into less suitable locations, reduce the number of spawning adults, eliminate settlement area for spat, lower disease resistance, and reduce substrate complexity of established reefs."
Dr. Mike Wilberg, associate professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said in general, dredging has a negative effect but there are many variables that affect oyster populations which could account for the contradictory studies.
"Oysters are very confusing and management is even more confusing," Wilberg said.
To his knowledge, however, there isn't any information that suggests there are any positive effects of dredging. At best, it's neutral.
Even at the height of oyster fishing in the late 1800s, writings show that sail-powered dredging had a negative impact on both the oyster population and the condition of the reefs they occupied, he said.
When dredging takes place, it reduces the height of oyster reefs and spreads the oysters over a larger area. Though this often results in a population increase — as noted by Dorchester County Councilman Bradshaw — this is a short-term increase.
"With a decreased height, there is a higher probability of oyster bars being covered and killed by sediment," Wilberg said.
Naylor, of the DNR, also said sanctuaries and dredging are incompatible. The main purpose of the sanctuaries is to cultivate oysters that have developed resistance to diseases.
"The sanctuaries allow natural selection to take place," he said. "In a harvest scenario, dredging removes a high percentage of the oysters, so natural selection is difficult to cultivate."
As a result of the creation of these sanctuaries, the same oyster status survey used as a source by the coalition states the oyster disease levels for 2013 remained below average for the 10th straight year after reaching record highs in 2002. Disease levels have also dropped compared to the year before.
Due to the decrease in the prevalence of oyster diseases in the Bay, the survey reported the observed mortality rate of oysters collected for testing was the second lowest since 1985, when diseases first began to seriously impact the population.
Additionally, though the reported biomass index of oysters was low, the study showed a 32 percent increase from 2012, reaching the highest point since the index was established in 1993.
Still, closing off 24 percent of the Bay's oyster habitat, much of which was harvested by current watermen's fathers and grandfathers, has had a strong negative impact on watermen, DNR's Naylor said.
DNR made a commitment to the oyster harvest industries to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the sanctuaries after five years, he said.
"[Sanctuaries] are essentially an experiment to see how oysters will do when there's not a lot of oyster harvesting," Naylor said. "[The evaluation] will determine if it makes sense to protect additional areas or, if it's not really working and there's no sense in it, we might as well harvest the oysters."
The five-year period will end in the fall of 2015 and the DNR will provide a full evaluation of the sanctuaries at that time.
Wilberg said sanctuaries are a step in the right direction, but not adequate to restore oyster populations. He has recommended in the past the state should close all oyster fishing in the Bay and its tributaries.
"[Oyster] exploitation rates are high and [the population is] at exceedingly low levels, at less than 1 percent of their historic highs in the 1700s," Wilberg said.
If oystering is not stopped, it at least needs to be significantly reduced, but no study has been conducted to compare the effects of sanctuaries to reduced fishing, he said.
Naylor said contrary to the Coalition's claims that no preliminary testing showed substrate taken from Florida and added to the Bay would successfully provide a suitable habitat for oysters, tests performed at the UMCES in the summer showed that spat were capable of setting in foreign substrate.
Naylor said he has seen this himself on substrate samples collected from Harris Creek.
To the Coalition's claim that the aquaculture program is illegal, he said the law allows watermen to grow oysters if they get the appropriate permits from the DNR.
Prior to 2010, no new permits were given to grow oysters in Maryland waterways. Obviously, Naylor said, this stifled the business of watermen. Now, however, the Eastern Shore has been opened up to watermen, and since 2010, the DNR has received several hundred applications.
"Leasing is growing in leaps and bounds," he said. "There were only about five or six aquaculture sites before and now there are several dozen."
About half of the leases have been applied for by watermen, Naylor said.
"They know the bottom and understand the basic biology and are really good at figuring out how to grow a good product," he said.
The permit is good for 20 years and the permit holder is required to plant 1 million oysters on at least 25 percent of the acreage.
"This is a $30 million annual business in Virginia, but less than a million in Maryland," Naylor said. "We've opened the door and it will very quickly become a multi-million dollar business in Maryland."
The Coalition's lawyer MacLeod said that according to the state, mass dredging of the Bay and its tributaries is too speculative, but based on the NOAA report, the evidence for or against dredging is inconclusive. According to what he has seen, he said the DNR's methods are just as speculative and inconclusive, so why not give something different a try.
"If these methods are a tossup, what's the harm in letting watermen go out and harvest the sanctuaries?" MacLeod said.
Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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