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Severn Build-A-Reef returns as Horn Point hatchery overcomes low salinity, then virus

The Severn River Association and the Oyster Recovery Partnership have teamed up to fundraise and plant 10 million oysters in the Severn. The Robert Lee is used to distribute oysters into the Severn River. The Severn River Association and the Oyster Recovery Partnership have teamed up to fundraise and plant 10 million oysters in the Severn.
The Severn River Association and the Oyster Recovery Partnership have teamed up to fundraise and plant 10 million oysters in the Severn. The Robert Lee is used to distribute oysters into the Severn River. The Severn River Association and the Oyster Recovery Partnership have teamed up to fundraise and plant 10 million oysters in the Severn. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Ten million baby oysters tumbled onto the Wade Reef in the Severn River on Thursday, the spot where environmentalists hope they will grow, provide habitat and filter the water for years to come.

Boaters gathered to watch as a pile of oysters shells covered in millions of thumbprint-sized juveniles was pushed off the deck of a workboat using a high-powered hose. Within an hour, all of the shells had fallen into the water near the Route 50 bridge.

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The planting was done through Build-A-Reef, a community-funded campaign by the Oyster Recovery Partnership and the Severn River Association. The first planting of 10 million oysters under the program took place in 2018.

Last year’s planting was delayed because heavy rainfall in 2018 and early 2019 caused low salinity, which stunted the production of baby oysters at Horn Point Laboratory on the Eastern Shore.

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Early in 2020, the Choptank River was sufficiently salty and the lab, which provides millions of baby oysters for aquaculture and reef restoration each year, was back to business as usual. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit Maryland, and scientists at Horn Point were forced once again to adapt to nature.

Lab director Stephanie Tobash Alexander said a reduced crew kept working in March, spreading out over two shifts to have as little close contact as possible. They were already months into the process of spawning oysters for the season. Restoration work was put on hold through the end of June; the lab only produced baby oysters for the commercial fishery.

Starting at the end of June they began restoration work again, Alexander said, helping to plant oysters on bars where wild harvesting is prohibited. But the window for restoration work this year, the year they were hoping to produce a lot to make up for 2019, has been reduced, Alexander said.

The Oyster Recovery Partnership, a long-standing partner of Horn Point, is also rushing to make up for time lost due to the pandemic.

Director Ward Slacum is optimistic, though, and said they have everything working to get the job done. They are in a similar situation — the restoration work they would have started in the spring started midsummer instead because of the pandemic.

Slacum said he has found that transparency about the limits they face has been key. After he told donors in 2019 that heavy rain meant there wouldn’t be any planting because there wasn’t enough spat, he said not a single person asked for their money back. Those funds were used to plant oysters Thursday instead.

While it isn’t clear what lies ahead in 2021, the Oyster Recovery Project does have evidence that oysters planted in the Severn thrive.

Reefs in the Severn were checked in April 2019, and the project reported that between 85% and 90% of the spat it planted in 2018 survived the low salinity. Survey crews found other oysters that were at least 6 years old, survivors of earlier plantings.

“We have seen and have evidence that those oysters will live for a very long time,” Slacum said.

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