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Watermen, environmentalists praise compromise allowing Tred Avon oyster restoration to resume

Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials join watermen to plant oyster spat in a public bar as part of oyster restoration efforts. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)

Environmentalists and watermen said they are pleased with a compromise under which state and federal agencies will resume construction of oyster reefs for a sanctuary in the Tred Avon River.

Hogan administration officials paused the work last winter, with the Army Corps of Engineers two-thirds of the way through 24 acres of reef construction in the river near Easton. That decision, in response to complaints from watermen, was worrisome to conservation groups. Maryland lost $1 million in federal oyster restoration money to Virginia as a result of the delay.

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The sides agreed Monday that the project should continue, as long as more efforts are made to build the reefs using old oyster shells rather than stone. Watermen say stone reefs can damage boats and equipment used for crabbing and fishing.

"I think it turned out right well," said Ben Parks, a waterman who lives in Cambridge and serves on the state's Oyster Advisory Commission. "The watermen I think saved face by agreeing to go forward."

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The Chesapeake Bay Foundation applauded the compromise, reached at a commission meeting Monday night.

"The science is clear that oyster restoration projects are working," said Alison Prost, the organization's Maryland executive director.

The Tred Avon project calls for eventually building 147 acres of oyster reefs in the Talbot County river, part of an effort between Maryland and the federal government to restore oyster populations in five bay tributaries by 2025. Oysters, which filter pollutants from the water and provide habitat for other bay creatures, have been devastated by decades of overfishing and disease. Today, the oyster population is just 1 percent of historic levels.

State and federal agencies have spent $1.43 million to build reefs in the Tred Avon and seed them with lab-grown baby oysters, completing planned work on 2.6 acres and starting work on 16 more. Since 2011, the agencies have spent $44 million on 400 acres in the river and two other waterways, the Little Choptank River and Harris Creek.

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The Corps of Engineers had told state officials that if it was going to resume work on the Tred Avon this winter, it needed to know by Friday. State officials will provide that notification before then, said Stephen Schatz, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Based on the commission's recommendations, the department will explore possible sources of fossilized oyster shells to use as reef-building material, he said. Officials also plan to honor a request from the commission that it be able to review any use of stone to build reefs in the future.

While the compromise between watermen and environmentalists means the project will go on, there could still be conflict ahead over oysters.

Since 2010, 24 percent of oyster bars in the Maryland portion of the bay have been held in sanctuary, off limits to harvesting, but the commission is considering whether to change that. In response to requests by watermen, Hogan administration officials have suggested opening some sanctuaries to harvest on a temporary basis.

Environmentalists say they hope to ensure that does not happen.

"The overriding goal must be to stay true to Maryland's progressive oyster management approach," Prost said. "Only 24 percent of Maryland's oyster grounds are set aside to rebuild natural reefs; we shouldn't backtrack and allow any of them to be opened for harvest."

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