OXFORD — Not far from the waterfront palaces bordering this picturesque Eastern Shore town, a barge-mounted crane is busily building new homes — in the water. Tons of broken clam shells and granite are going into the Tred Avon River to give a new start to millions of oysters.
Maryland's ambitious campaign to restore the Chesapeake Bay's once-legendary bivalves opened a new front this spring, continuing the largest shellfish restoration effort of its kind on the East Coast, if not anywhere.
But watermen, still bothered over losing harvestable waters to the restoration effort five years ago, have managed to get a few changes in the construction of new reefs in oyster sanctuaries in the Tred Avon and two other tributaries of the Choptank River. Officials are using less granite and suspending the use of fossilized oyster shell from Florida, both of which watermen complained about.
Those minor changes in construction of the sanctuaries — plus the recent departure of the state Department of Natural Resources official overseeing shellfish programs — could be signs of watermen's growing influence in fisheries management under Gov. Larry Hogan, who has vowed to end what he has called his predecessor's "war on watermen."
"We're looking for some more changes, but the attitude has already changed," said Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "They are sitting down and negotiating with us some."
The watermen did not get everything they wanted. Brown said they tried in vain to halt the start of reef construction in the Tred Avon this year, but settled for changes to the project.
"We made the best out of a bad situation," he said of the state's agreement to scale back the use of granite to build 24 acres of reefs.
Only three of the 12 reefs will contain rocks, half as many as originally planned. Watermen say the underwater mounds of granite interfere with the gear they use to catch crabs in the rivers in summertime.
Supporters of the restoration effort say the changes have stirred uncertainty about the future of the mammoth, multimillion-dollar experiment.
"I've got my fingers crossed that we're going to maintain course," said Mark Bryer of The Nature Conservancy, which has donated money to monitor the reefs.
The stakes are high. Despite an uptick in recent years, the bay's oyster population remains around 1 percent of historic levels, severely depleted after decades of overharvesting, habitat loss and diseases that killed many of the remaining bivalves.
Five years ago, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced a sweeping plan aimed at rebuilding the bay's oyster population, primarily for its ecological value. He doubled the state's existing network of sanctuaries where bivalves would be spared from harvest and pledged a multimillion-dollar effort to plant hatchery-reared oysters on newly built reefs in five bay tributaries.
Watermen bitterly opposed the move, contending that the state was threatening their livelihood by making some of the most productive oyster reefs left in the bay off limits for harvesting.
Despite losing formerly public oyster reefs to sanctuaries, watermen saw their harvest quadruple in recent years. They landed about 400,000 bushels in the season just ended, according to preliminary figures. Experts say the jump in catch stems from favorable weather and a phenomenally successful reproduction year that gave the wild bivalve population a modest boost.
The number of watermen licensed to harvest oysters, meanwhile, has grown from around 650 five years ago to about 1,100 now.
But midway through the restoration effort, watermen remain skeptical of spending millions of dollars to build reefs on which to plant hatchery-reared oysters.
"As far as I'm concerned, I don't see where they've done much good," Brown said.
Proponents, though, say the results are promising. Oysters appear to be thriving in spot checks of reefs built and seeded in Harris Creek, the first of three Choptank tributaries targeted for restoration.
Since 2011, 275 acres worth of reefs have been restored, mostly in Harris Creek, at a cost of $35 million in state and federal funds. Spread across miles of bottom, the low mounds of shell and rock, if put together on land, would cover both Patterson and Clifton parks in East Baltimore.
More than 1.7 billion baby oysters, spawned at the University of Maryland's Horn Point hatchery, have been "planted" on the restored reefs. Hundreds more acres of reef are planned, to be seeded with billions more hatchery-reared oysters.
Supporters hope the major effort will help jump-start the bay's oyster population, spreading bivalves beyond the sanctuaries and reviving the Chesapeake in the process. Research shows that reefs full of bivalves, which feed by filtering algae from the water, can put a significant dent in the nutrient pollution fouling the bay. Thriving reefs also provide food and shelter for crabs, fish and other aquatic life.
But watermen have questioned the science behind the restoration effort, as well as the methods and materials used in building some of the reefs.
In the Little Choptank, watermen contend the fossil shell imported from Florida was full of dirt and could harbor harmful organisms. State officials defended it at the time, saying that while "live" shells from recently harvested oysters or clams were preferable, they are hard to come by.
DNR officials say oysters appear to be settling well on the fossil shell. Nevertheless, because of watermen's objections, the agency is holding off building more reefs with the material and is instead looking to add hatchery oysters to existing, unrestored sites in the Little Choptank.
On the Tred Avon, officials say the changes are relatively minor and do not alter the scale of the $2 million federally funded project, which is being directed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The changes could delay the work, however, as Corps officials say they must find more shell to substitute for the rock. The shells being placed in the river now are broken clam and whelk shells from New Jersey.
William Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, suggested that watermen might have another reason for wanting fewer reefs made of granite in the Tred Avon. The rocks could make it harder to scrape up oysters with the tongs watermen use, he noted.
"I think they hope to be allowed to harvest oysters in the Tred Avon again," Goldsborough said.
David Goshorn, assistant DNR secretary for aquatic resources, said officials have no reason to doubt or look behind watermen's complaints about crabbing difficulties with rocky reefs.
As for reopening the Tred Avon or any other sanctuary to commercial harvest, Goshorn said, the department is still gathering data on how the restored reefs are faring.
The department plans to complete an evaluation by next summer, he said, not just of the oyster sanctuaries, but of the state's overall management of the wild oyster fishery and of the small but growing industry of "farming" oysters in waters leased from the state. The state's future management of oysters will depend on what the data shows and on "continuing consultations with stakeholders," according to Goshorn.
Meanwhile, pending the results of that evaluation, the state has put off selecting the next two rivers it has pledged to target for reef restoration.
In addition to changes in the reef work, the Department of Natural Resources recently transferred Michael Naylor, the veteran manager of the state's shellfish programs. The watermen's group president welcomed his reassignment, calling Naylor "very hard to deal with," though he would not go into specifics.
Goshorn declined to explain Naylor's transfer to the department's Integrated Policy and Review Unit, saying only: "This was what we felt was best for the department."
Others praised Naylor's dedication and management skills. But they acknowledged that he might have rubbed watermen the wrong way, if only because he was carrying out policies they opposed.
"He wasn't quite good enough at telling watermen what they wanted to hear," said David Sikorski, government relations chairman for the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland. The recreational anglers group, frequently at odds with watermen, supports the oyster restoration work, in part because the reefs provide habitat for fish.
Brown said watermen hope to regain access eventually to at least some of the waters placed off limits in sanctuaries. He contended that oysters do better when their reefs are periodically worked over, and that if the diseases that decimated oysters 15 years ago ever return, the sanctuary oysters will die and be of no value to anyone.
But scientists and environmentalists hope to convince watermen that leaving the sanctuaries alone can lead to more oysters for them as well as for cleaning up the bay.
"If we're looking to preserve that watermen's community, we need to learn how to sustain that oyster population," said Ken Paynter, a longtime oyster researcher at the University of Maryland. "We're really just beginning the interesting part of the experiment. It would be a shame to just undo it."
An early version mischaracterized the complaint Maryland watermen have made about the government's use of granite in building new oyster reefs. They contend that the rocks interfere with their ability to catch crabs using a baited trotline laid along the river bottom. The Sun regrets the error.