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Maryland proposes creating Manokin River oyster sanctuary — but leaves open chance to harvest it one day

Maryland officials on Wednesday proposed establishing a new oyster sanctuary in the Eastern Shore's Manokin River, and suggested paying for it using only state money — a maneuver that could allow watermen to one day harvest from it.

Sanctuaries are permanently off-limits to harvesting if they are federally funded.

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The move to create a new sanctuary advances the long-term goal of restoring the Chesapeake Bay’s depleted oyster population — and also efforts by Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration to balance ecological gains with the interests of the state’s seafood industry.

A year after baby oysters were deposited on a man-made reef near the Francis Scott Key Bridge, the bivalves are flourishing despite a legacy of Patapsco River pollution, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said.

State natural resources officials said they chose the Manokin, in Somerset County, as a potential sanctuary because they think artificial reefs seeded with lab-grown oysters could be successful there.

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The proposal replaces a potential sanctuary at Breton Bay, a tributary of the Potomac River. State natural resources officials said Wednesday that waterway was found to be inhospitable for the bivalves — a survey did not find a single oyster there, dead or alive.

“We believe that the Manokin River — an area situated to provide for natural, robust and self-sustaining oyster recruitment and reproduction — provides the best possible site for large-scale restoration success,” said Mark Belton, state secretary of natural resources.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded the federal grant to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to aid its efforts to increase the number of Eastern oysters, as well as installing a shoreline around Hambleton Island to curb erosion in the area.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation praised the choice, saying it has long advocated for the Manokin as a target for oyster resurgence. But Alison Prost, the foundation’s Maryland executive director, also said she has “deep concerns” about the possibility that a sanctuary there could be reopened eventually to watermen.

Under a 2014 agreement struck with the federal government and other Chesapeake Bay watershed states, Maryland committed to restoring oyster populations in five bay tributaries.

To that end, the federal government has provided tens of millions of dollars since the 1990s for oyster restoration work in the Maryland portion of the bay. Work began first in three Eastern Shore waterways — Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River and the Tred Avon River. Last year, the state chose Breton Bay and the upper St. Mary’s River for additional restoration work.

But the projects have frustrated watermen worried about losing their most productive harvesting grounds. At their behest, the Hogan administration has considered shifts in oyster management policies to give chances for at least temporary harvesting in some oyster sanctuaries.

The Severn River Association and Oyster Recovery Partnership are teaming up to dump 50 million oysters into the Severn River, one of the largest scale projects in that area.

The talk prompted the General Assembly to pass a law last year banning harvesting in oyster sanctuaries through the end of this year, when a study of the state oyster population’s health is expected to be released.

But there is no flexibility when it comes to federally funded oyster reefs, which are permanently closed to harvest.

Environmentalists said they fear the state is declining to use federal funding for oyster work in the Manokin so it can evade that restriction.

“The state’s decision to move forward without federal partners may open the door to future harvest,” Prost said in a statement. “We urge the governor to take that option off the table and ensure that taxpayer funded restoration provides permanent water quality benefits.”

State natural resources officials did not respond to those concerns but said they don’t believe federal funding is needed to achieve oyster restoration targets in the Manokin. Department spokesman Stephen Schatz said officials believe goals can be reached in both that river and the Upper St. Mary’s “with minimal investment from the state.”

A plan Gov. Larry Hogan's administration had been considering to give watermen periodic access to oyster sanctuaries is dead in the water now that a recently passed bill has become law without Hogan's signature.

Jim Mullin, president of the Maryland Oystermen’s Association, said he and other watermen are digesting the state’s proposal. They have raised concerns that too much of the oyster sanctuary work was focused on the Eastern Shore, and for that reason were glad to see the Breton Bay proposal.

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“We would like to see that oyster sanctuary network spread more throughout the bay,” Mullin said. “I know it’s tough to find candidates for this kind of stuff.”

As for the possibility that a restored oyster population in the Manokin could one day be reopened to harvesting, he said he isn’t counting on it, with or without federal funding going to the project.

“I don’t see it happening,” Mullin said.

The proposal is scheduled to be reviewed over the coming months and discussed at a meeting of the state’s Oyster Advisory Commission in November.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Oyster Shell Shaking days are scheduled for 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays, Aug. 10, 17, 24 and 31, at the Oyster Restoration Center at 4800 Atwell Road, Shady Side.

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