In less than 20 feet of water, just north of where tankers and cruise ships make their slow turns from the Chesapeake Bay into the Patapsco River, lies the third rail of Maryland fishing.
An oyster bar made up of millions of bushels of fossil shell sits on the bay bottom - the largest single deposit left in Maryland's portion of the bay. The state wants to restart its languishing oyster restoration program by digging up as much as 30 percent of the bar - known as Man-O-War Shoal - to serve as a foundation for a $30 million program.
The proposal, however, could again spark bad feelings among recreational anglers who fish the oyster bar, watermen who once depended on oysters for their livelihoods and state officials charged with bay restoration.
Anglers and watermen are expected to make their displeasure known Wednesday at a meeting of the Oyster Advisory Commission, which directed the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to apply for a dredging permit.
Upper-bay anglers love Man-O-War because it attracts large numbers of white perch, croaker and spot, making it a perfect place to catch dinner or introduce youngsters to fishing. Watermen - especially those who harvest oysters while under sail - like the long sweeps they can make along the bar.
DNR officials insist that the new restoration efforts are nothing like those that ended in 2006 with little to show for four decades of digging and moving shell from place to place in failed attempts to jump-start an oyster population that stands at about 1 percent of its historical high.
But two groups representing thousands of recreational anglers on the bay say they will oppose any attempt to carve away portions of the shoal because of the potential for destroying the oyster bar, harming marine life and disrupting fishing and boating.
"We're not drinking the Kool-Aid," said Andy Hughes, chairman of the 1,200-member Coastal Conservation Association Maryland. "The old science and old ideas didn't work, and this looks like more of the same."
Dave Smith, associate executive director of the 7,000-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, said his group's opposition to shell dredging is long-standing and not likely to change.
"They're going to say it's a different approach," Smith said. "But we've been at this 40 years now, and what do we have to show for it?"
Watermen, too, vow to oppose the plan, which they say comes at their expense.
"They want us to give up an oyster bar, but they only want to put a small portion of the shell where it will help us," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "Why should we make that sacrifice?"
DNR officials say they are meeting with concerned groups and there will be an open house to let the public air its concerns. But Fisheries director Tom O'Connell acknowledged the difficulty in reversing opinion.
"You just mention dredging and it brings back a lot of bad memories," he said. "There's still a lot of uncertainty about going forward with the restoration of oysters."
The General Assembly passed a bill last session requiring DNR to file a dredging application by July 1 with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers if the Oyster Advisory Commission requested it. The 21-member commission gave its blessing in May.
The state and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation consider restoring oysters, which filter the water, a critical part of saving the bay. To survive, baby oysters need to attach to a clean, hard surface. Although other materials, from crushed concrete to limestone, have been used, fossil shell has been Maryland's primary foundation for planting oyster bars. These bars, however, quickly get buried in silt, rendering them useless and requiring the shell to be cleaned or replaced.
The permit application says 5 million bushels of shells will be carved from Man-O-War bar during the first five years of the program. Hydraulic dredges would gouge trenches no more than one-third of the way into the bar and no wider than 500 feet. A minimum of 2 feet of shell would be left at the bottom of each cut.
If the first phase is deemed a success, the permit says, DNR will apply to extend the permit "until the maximum 30 million bushels of shells have been removed."
O'Connell said at each step in the dredging process biologists will assess the effect on water quality and fish and oyster populations. In a break with previous restoration efforts, in which nearly all the shell was used to provide watermen with oyster-harvesting opportunities, this program would allocate 90 percent of the shell for ecological projects such as rebuilding oyster sanctuaries and other no-harvest areas.
"We're going forward very cautiously," O'Connell said. "If we design these cuts properly, we can dredge and not impact the integrity of Man-O-War and maybe enhance the habitat."
But recreational groups worry that the dredging operation will place productive fishing areas off limits in June and July and foul the water with sediment. And, they say, they don't want the state experimenting with the biggest stockpile of fossil shells without having a comprehensive bay-wide oyster-restoration plan in place and the money to carry it out.
"You don't go buying materials to build a house until you've seen the architectural plans," Hughes said.
Scott McGuire, CCA's government relations committee chairman, said members want to know why the shoal will be sacrificed for minimal benefit, noting that 30 million bushels of shell from Man-O-War will build only 1,400 acres of reef while the bay loses 2,400 acres a year to silting.
"We want to see real benchmarks, real goals outlined before they start dredging," he said. "This is all experimental. I think the upper-bay fishermen would say, 'Go experiment someplace else.' "
Oyster Advisory Commission meeting
When: Wednesday, 4 p.m.
Where: Philip Merrill Environmental Center, 6 Herndon Ave., Annapolis