At least $1 million in federal money earmarked to build new oyster reefs on the Eastern Shore will instead go to Virginia after Maryland officials asked that the project be delayed.
An oyster restoration project in the Tred Avon River, a tributary of the Choptank River in Talbot County, began in 2015 and had been scheduled to resume early this year. The project is part of a wider effort to help oyster populations rebound throughout the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia.
However, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in December called for a delay, and despite calls from environmentalists and both of the state's U.S. senators to ignore the request, the Army Corps of Engineers said Tuesday it did not expect to restart the efforts until at least October.
Additional federal money set aside for Maryland oyster restoration projects could be transferred in July if further delays occur, an Army Corps spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Debate over the future of the Tred Avon and other projects will come down to whether a larger restoration project that began in Talbot County in 2011 has been successful. State officials and watermen who lobbied for the delay said they want to see proof before the Tred Avon efforts continue. A state report is due in July.
The Tred Avon delay affects the final 8 acres of an initial 24-acre project that was not completed last year because of a shortage of shells, said Sarah Gross, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps. The delay could also push back another 20 to 30 acres of projects along the river that were set to begin next winter, she said.
In all, 83 acres in the Tred Avon are planned for new oyster beds in an $11.4 million project. The projects involve constructing reefs and planting baby oysters grown at the University of Maryland Horn Point Hatchery near Cambridge.
Stephen Schatz, a spokesman for the Maryland natural resources department, said state officials opted to slow the project because it would not have been completed until perhaps two months before the progress report on oyster restoration efforts is due. Officials chose to wait to see if the efforts are working before spending more on them.
"We're still committed to restoration work," he said. "This pause, we thought, was just prudent at this time."
Gross said preliminary data shows the restoration is working.
"It's a real loss for Maryland," said Alison Prost, executive director of the Maryland office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We know $1 million is lost for this year, but it also puts in jeopardy our funds for future years."
Watermen argue oyster reproduction rates are actually worse inside designated sanctuaries than they are in areas open to harvesting. They said they are glad to see the project slowed.
"If you're bound and determined to spend this money, I would rather see you spend it on something worthwhile elsewhere," said Bunky Chance, president of the Talbot County Watermen's Association. "The only reason they're screaming, 'We have to spend this money' is to pressure everyone involved to push this sanctuary program forward."
"Either they'll prove us wrong or we'll prove them wrong, and we'll take it from there," Chance said.