Some long-gone oysters from prehistoric times are going to play a role in restoring the Chesapeake Bay's current crop of bivalves. Maryland has purchased 112,500 tons of fossilized oyster shells for $6.3 million from a quarry in the panhandle of Florida, officials announced Friday.
The first 25-car trainload has been offloaded into barges in Baltimore for the last leg of its journey to Harris Creek, a tidal Eastern Shore water way targeted by the state for an ambitious effort to replenish the bay's depleted oyster population.
A shortage of natural shell to help rebuild the bay's lost oyster reefs had threatened to limit plans by federal and state authorities to conduct large-scale restoration efforts in 10 bay tributaries in Maryland.
To survive and grow, oysters must attach themselves to something hard, preferably another oyster shell that's off the bottom. But restoration efforts have been complicated because an estimated 80 percent of suitable oyster beds on the bay's bottom have been either worn down or smothered by silt, requiring extensive rebuilding.
State officials say the Florida quarry operated by Gulf Coast Aggregates was the best source they could find for material to complete the 377-acre sanctuary in Harris Creek and start work in the Little Choptank River, the next waterway slated for work.
The hefty transportation costs were eased considerably by the rail company CSX, which agreed to haul more than 20 trainloads of the shells from Florida at cost. A company spokeswoman said translates into a roughly 50 percent discount worth $2.4 million. The shipping deal was arranged by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, officials said.
"As long-time supporters of Chesapeake Bay efforts, we saw very quickly that our business resources were the missing link," said Melanie Cost, the CSX spokeswoman.
Gov. Martin O'Malley praised CSX for its "generous contribution" to the state's oyster restoration efforts and thanked the foundation for negotiating the deal.
The state Department of the Environment recently renewed a permit for CSX to discharge storm water from its Curtis Bay coal pier, a move opposed by environmental groups and some community residents seeking more safeguards against water and air pollution from the facility. (An earlier version incorrectly said CSX sought state approval to expand the facility.) But Cost said the company's contribution to the oyster project was freely given and not a condition of any permit or enforcement action.
The shell is to be transferred from rail cars to barges at CSX's coal pier in Curtis Bay. The company has cleaned and reserved one 50-car train and equipment at the pier for handling the shell.
The state is spending about $30 million in Harris Creek, betting that hatchery-spawned oysters planted on extensive man-made reefs there can survive and spread over time. The creek was chosen as the first to launch the restoration initiative because experts deemed its water quality and salinity optimal for the experiment.
The fossilized shells being quarried are from a long-extinct species of oysters that populated Gulf area waters millions of years ago, said Michael Naylor, who oversees Maryland's oyster restoration efforts for the Department of Natural Resources.
"Natural oyster shell is the preferred material, but this is the best we can get in this quantity for this purpose," said David Goshorn, assistant DNR secretary for aquatic resources. While these fossilized shells have not been used before in the bay, Naylor said they have been proven effective in rebuilding reefs in the Gulf.
"It remains to be seen how far this shell will go," Naylor said.
Gulf states are expected to tap the same quarry for oyster reef building efforts soon, Naylor said, using funds earmarked for restoration from ecological harm caused by the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill off Louisiana's coast in 2010. Once that happens, he said, it's uncertain how much more shell will be available for Maryland to purchase there.
To make the most of this deal, state officials say they'll use more than 150,000 cubic yards of granite from a Maryland quarry to lay a foundation for the new reefs, then cover the rocks with a layer of fossilized shell. With that mix, they hope to create roughly 80 football fields' worth of underwater oyster reefs approximately 12 inches high.