Baby oysters settling in as newest bay residents

The Baltimore Sun

Take 10,000 tons of concrete - in fist-sized and car-sized chunks - slather it with a layer of old shells and garnish with 500,000 baby oysters. What do you have? A recipe for Chesapeake Bay success, environmentalists and anglers hope.

For the first time, a Maryland group building artificial reefs has seeded one of its largest projects with oysters in an attempt to find a new way to coax the bay's most important resident back home. And in another first, Dominion, the Virginia-based energy company, has paid $250,000 for the naming rights.

That's right, the hot fishing spot at the mouth of the Choptank River known by charter boat captains and anglers alike as "The Gooses," is now "The Dominion Reef at The Gooses."

You laugh. But unlike the naming of baseball fields (Enron Field, anyone?) this project could do some public good.

Early Thursday morning at the Chesapeake Beach docks, Capt. Brian Keehn watched in amusement as divers loaded enough gear on his charter boat to make Jacques Cousteau smile and the stern of the Canvasback dip. The destination was a 362-acre spot off the Eastern Shore, where about 32 feet down, 10,000 tons of the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge sat on the solid bay bottom.

Divers, including volunteers from Dominion, planned to act as an aquatic Welcome Wagon to introduce the young bivalves to their new home.

Artificial reefs such as The Gooses create habitat to replace what is being buried by silt and other glop that pours into the bay. Private foundations, corporations and anglers have all contributed to the nonprofit Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative.

Reef building is becoming commonplace here, thanks to MARI. But planting oysters at this depth is not. In summer, low oxygen levels create dead zones in the bay's deepest waters, so biologists prefer to hedge their bets by sowing seed in 20 feet or less.

The Gooses, however, is an underwater peninsula framed by the Choptank and the deep bay channel, and that flow might be enough to stave off an oxygen crash, explained Marty Gary, a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

"This is an opportunity to learn," he said. "If we can be successful here, we can, maybe, get oysters placed in other areas with similar characteristics."

That would be good news for people like Stephan Abel of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which supplied The Gooses oyster spat.

"Two thousand acres of natural oyster habitat disappears each year," he said, watching the divers prepare. "We're fighting an uphill battle, so all options need to be explored."

As the Canvasback arrived and swung into place, underwater videographer Nick Caloyianis briefed dive teams on what they were likely to see and gave them a pep talk.

"There's an amazing array of species already down there ... seven or eight species," he said. "Yesterday, guys were fishing here. It's definitely doing its job as an artificial reef."

The divers got to the bottom and began opening bags of old oyster shell with the thumbnail-sized babies riding piggyback.

"I would like to think other corporations are doing these kinds of things," said Dan Genest, a Dominion spokesman. "It's not just restoring a fishing area, it's restoring the plant life and other marine life."

By noon, the bay's 500,000 new residents had settled in.

Let's hope it's a long stay.

Surviving cutbacks

Thanks to public response and lobbying by the Wildlife Advisory Commission, the aviation unit of Natural Resources Police was spared the ax last week, when the Board of Public Works sliced $400 million from this year's state budget.

The rest of the force wasn't as lucky.

Of the 46 positions cut from the Department of Natural Resources, 31 were at the expense of NRP- and there's no easy way to get them back. To make do, it appears the administration will eliminate police management positions rather than boots in the field, but that still leaves the law-enforcement cupboard pretty bare.

If there's an upside, it's that the O'Malley administration spared the Fisheries Service and state parks.

But to compensate for the NRP losses, someone is going to have to come up with a smoke-and-mirrors way to make NRP look bigger, much in the way survival experts teach hikers to raise their arms to look larger to a charging bear. That could mean making big, fat examples of some of the repeat bad actors who steal our fish and critters.

A good place to start might be with Joey Janda, 22, who was arrested this month on the Patuxent River after officers inspected his catch and found that more than 40 percent of his oysters were undersized.

During the past six years, Janda has been taken to Eastern Shore courts by NRP on 36 offenses, ranging from catching undersized crabs to dredging for oysters in a restricted area to working on a suspended license. In May, Janda was convicted in Talbot District Court after officers caught him running his boat after dark without lights while hauling 11 bushels of oysters of which up to 30 percent were undersized. For 11 counts of possessing undersized oysters and operating without lights, Janda was fined $305-a part of the cost of doing business.

This time, Janda's appearing on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where he has a Dec. 12 date in St. Mary's District Court.

Let's see whether the change of venue changes his luck.

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