Oysters and shells exposed to air at low tide in Harris Creek, focus of a restoration effort.
Oysters and shells exposed to air at low tide in Harris Creek, focus of a restoration effort. (Mid-Shore Riverkeeper Conservancy)

Now for a bit of good news - and from an environmental group at that.

Drew Koslow, the Choptank Riverkeeper, reports that while walking the shore of Harris Creek in Talbot County, he saw an "amazing" abundance of oysters growing in the intertidal zone, inundated by water at high tide but exposed to the air at ebb.


"You literally couldn't take a step without walking on oysters," Koslow said in a recent release by the Mid-Shore Riverkeeper Conservancy. "In my four years as the Choptank Riverkeeper, I have never seen spatfall density like there is in Harris Creek."

Harris Creek, on the east side of Tilghman Island near the mouth of the Choptank River, is the focus of a state and federal effort to restore oysters to a corner of the Chesapeake Bay.  The estuary once brimmed with the shellfish, but disease, pollution and overharvesting reduced the population to barely one percent of historic levels.

Oysters are a key to the bay's health.  Not just tasty to eat, they help filter the bay's waters, and their depletion coincided with the bay's decline.

Harris Creek was targeted for restoration to fulfill one of the goals set by President Obama's 2009 executive order on the bay, which calls for reviving oyster populations in 10 Maryland water ways by 2025.  The Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources began working last year to expand historic oyster bars in the creek and seed them with baby oysters, or spat, produced in a state hatchery.

Waterfront property owners also are contributing to the effort, through the Maryland Grow Oysters Program.  It's run jointly by DNR, the Oyster Recover Partnership and various nonprofit groups, including the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, of which Koslow is a part.  Dock owners raise oysters from spat for a year in wire mesh cages hung from their piers, then the bivalves are placed under water on bars or reefs in one of the tidal creeks or rivers set aside by the state as sanctuaries.

State, federal and nonprofit groups placed 634 million spat in Maryland's portion of the bay last year, with most going into the Harris Creek oyster sanctuary. The reef buildup and plantings covered nearly a third of the 360 acres of creek that are targeted for restoration.

Oysters appear to be doing better these days, with more surviving the diseases that once decimated them, and summer 2012 saw good reproduction, according to DNR. Koslow said he saw in Harris Creek the fruits of the decades-long struggle to bring back the bay's oysters.

"The amazing thing was the thousands of oysters of differing ages," he said, "indicating successful spatfalls over a number of years."

The bay's oysters still have a long way to go to recover their historic abundance, but for now the signs are encouraging.