Man-O-War shoal center of controversy again

There aren't many people who think that nibbling away at one of the largest underwater pile of oyster shells left in the Chesapeake Bay is a good idea right now.

Not upper bay recreational anglers, who love how Man-O-War shoal acts as a magnet for white perch, croaker and spot.

Not watermen, who say they will lose a valuable harvest area to projects that will benefit oyster sanctuaries and habitat restoration, not them.

Not the brass at the Department of Natural Resources, who believe it may be the wrong time and the wrong place for a fight.

Yet, because of the meddling of ham-fisted state lawmakers who think they know better, DNR must decide how to press ahead on a permit application to dredge shell from Man-O-War for oyster restoration projects.

Secretary John Griffin is reviewing a staff memo that outlines possible avenues of attack on an issue that has been festering for more than three years.

Despite opposition by almost everyone, he has no choice but to somehow forge ahead. A 2009 law enacted by the General Assembly requires DNR to apply for the dredging permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. That law stripped biologists and scientists of the power to make decisions based on research and replaced it with the General Assembly's own all-knowing wisdom.

And after passing the bill not once, but twice (in 2008, and again in 2009 after realizing a permit application took more time than just scribbling on the back of an envelope and mailing it in), state lawmakers walked away from Annapolis, satisfied that they had taken care of that pesky oyster thing.

Instead, the aptly named Man-O-War has placed high-profile recreational and commercial interests on the same side of an issue as few other things have. Even DNR officials have doubts.

"We really question whether this is the time to go after Man-O-War shoal," said Fisheries Service Director Tom O'Connell. "It's difficult to put a lot of time and effort into it at this point because there's no money to carry it out. A lot of outreach would be needed and in the end I don't think it's going to change anybody's mind."

Man-O-War is nothing to look at. Really. It's under about 20 feet of water just north of where northbound tankers and cruise ships make their slow turns from the Chesapeake Bay into the Patapsco River.

But with a mass of about 100 million bushels of shells, it's a gold mine for people who want to restore oysters to their rightful place in the bay's ecosystem.

For four decades, Maryland's battle plan consisted mostly of digging up old shell deposits, cleaning them up and dumping piles of them back in the water to act as nurseries for baby oysters.

But 180 million bushels and millions and millions of dollars later, the bay oyster population was at 1 percent of its historic level. In 2006, DNR decided to stop beating its head against the wall and allowed the dredging permit to lapse.

Watermen, who were the primary recipients of paychecks made out by the "oyster recovery" program, howled to their state lawmakers and, voila, a bill was born.

But, funny thing happened along the way. The O'Malley administration decided to set aside 90 percent of dredged shell for new projects, not old welfare programs. That splash that followed was the watermen's community leaping off Man-O-War.

Last month, DNR brass met with recreational interests and a representative of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation — the only major player in favor of dredging. Coastal Conservation Association Maryland sent a follow-up letter to the department last week, reiterating its opposition:

"No matter how well-intentioned, without a clear and achievable purpose for such an activity, a funding plan and a binding financial commitment to see that plan through, and a strong demonstration that the greater goal of restoring oyster populations bay-wide would be served by such a severe action, CCA Maryland has not and cannot support or condone any dredging of fossil shell…"

The 2009 permit application contains a five-year timetable that would set aside the first year for site monitoring, dredging 2 million bushels of shell the second year, monitoring the effects in the third and fourth years and dredging 3 million bushels in the final year. The long-term goal would be to remove a maximum of 30 million bushels, about one-third of the shoal.

Mike Naylor, DNR's point man on oyster recovery, says that shell removal techniques have come a long way from the days when dredgers "would go to a big knoll and remove it," but understands why distrust remains high.

He disagrees with those who say that the 1,400 acres of restored habitat from 30 million bushels of Man-O-War shell would be a drop in the bucket. The venture is not a slam-dunk, he acknowledges, but not doing anything is unacceptable.

"There's only so much we can do and then Mother Nature has to do the rest," Naylor says. "All you can do is put the shell out and then hope for a field of dreams."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad