The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has granted the Hogan administration’s request to halt an oyster restoration project in the Tred Avon River, risking future federal funding for an ambitious effort to carry out a large-scale revival of the Chesapeake Bay’s iconic but depleted shellfish.

Construction of eight acres of new oyster reefs in the Tred Avon, which had been scheduled to begin this month, will be delayed at least until next winter, the Corps said. And $1 million that would have gone to the Maryland project will now be allocated to the Corps’ sister office in Norfolk for oyster restoration work in Virginia, said Sarah Gross, spokeswoman for the Corps’ Baltimore District.

Virginia has also been working to restore oyster habitat in its portion of the Chesapeake, where the waters are saltier and oysters grow better, but are more threatened by crippling oyster diseases.

DNR Secretary Mark Belton initially asked for the Tred Avon delay in December after the governor’s staff met with watermen who oppose the way restoration is being done.  Accompanied by a member of Gov. Larry Hogan’s staff, Belton reiterated the request last week at a meeting with officials from the Corps and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A DNR spokesman had said the administration wants to “pause” the Tred Avon project until DNR can complete a review of the state’s overall approach to oysters, including how it manages commercial harvest, sanctuaries and aquaculture. That review is to be done by July, he said.

Once harvested by multiple millions of bushels, the bay’s oysters have been decimated since the late 19th century by overfishing, habitat loss and diseases.

The Tred Avon is one of 10 tributaries planned for intensive restoration work to be completed by 2025 under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement adopted in 2014.  Planning for the effort began in 2009, when the Corps, along with Maryland and Virginia, decided after an Environmental Impact study not to put Asian oysters in the Bay to augment the lagging native shellfish population. By 2012, the Corps and the states had developed a Native Oyster Restoration Master Plan, which focused on replenishing Crassostrea Virginica, the native oyster, for both harvest and habitat.

At a legislative briefing in Annapolis, Belton told House lawmakers Tuesday that the Hogan administration remains “very committed” to the overall bay restoration effort. But in response to complaints from what he called “stakeholders,” Belton said the administration thought it “prudent” to halt reef construction until the department completes its review.

“This is applied science on a grand scale, never before attempted” Belton said, paraphrasing one of his aides, “It’s important to get it exactly right.”

The Corp had planned to build 24 acres of reefs in the Tred Avon last year, but was able to finish only 16 acres because of a shortage of clam shells, which are being used to provide a suitable foundation for new oysters. The other eight acres were to be constructed this month.

In all, federal and state officials had planned to build 84 acres of reefs in the Tred Avon and seed them with hatchery-spawned oysters, at a cost of $11.4 million. 

Restoration work has been completed in Harris Creek -- where 2 billion hatchery oysters were placed on about 350 acres of restored reefs -- and has been about one-third done on the Little Choptank River, according to state officials.

Surveys and underwater video from some of the Harris Creek reefs has led oyster researchers, NOAA officials and the Corps to believe the restoration is meeting at least initial success. But several watermen have argued that the restored reefs, which are in sanctuaries off limits to harvest, are not showing any greater reproduction than reefs that are regularly dredged.  They also have complained that fossilized shell the government used to build some of the reefs is laden with mud and silt that smothers oysters and makes crabbing more difficult.

Environmental activists, oyster researchers, Maryland’s two U.S. senators and U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen asked Corps officials not to halt the Tred Avon work. They had hoped that last week’s meeting with the Corps would convince Hogan to let the project go forward and allow federal resources to bolster Chesapeake habitat.  Sen. Ben Cardin recently wrote a piece on the web site Medium urging Maryland not to "veer off course" on oyster restoration. 

“Make no mistake, this is a step in the wrong direction,” he wrote. “Not only does this move by the State of Maryland needlessly delay progress, it unnecessarily risks the forfeit of the federal funds that make the restoration work possible.”

But Hogan did not change his mind, and Corps officials felt they had no choice.

“This federal oyster restoration program requires a non-federal cost-shared sponsor. In this case, the sponsor is Maryland DNR,” said Corps spokeswoman Gross. “Maryland DNR requested the Corps delay restoration in this Chesapeake Bay tributary until DNR releases its own progress report in July.”

What happens now

The delay affects not only the 8-acre reef project, but also 20 to 30 acres of shallow-water reef restoration planned to begin in late 2016, Gross said. The Corps is still planning to complete an environmental assessment for that phase of the project, and will hold a public meeting on it later this winter, Gross said.

The restoration work for the tributaries went through a long public review process, and federal and state officials have made changes to accommodate watermen’s concerns, including complaints that the new reefs have damaged boats and interfere with crabbing.

Belton downplayed the significance of the reef project delay in Tuesday’s legislative briefing. He said that restoration work is proceeding in the Little Choptank and that hatchery oysters will be planted this year on the 16 acres of reefs that have been done in the Tred Avon.

The natural resources secretary said that the Corps Baltimore District commander, Col. Ed Chamberlayne, had assured him during last week’s meeting that the Tred Avon reef work could resume next winter if the state decides after its review to proceed.

But in a statement released Tuesday, Chamberlayne indicated his agency can’t guarantee it will be able to get the Tred Avon reefs done next winter. And he warned that further funding shifts may occur if DNR balks any more.

“In July, if DNR affirms its support for oyster restoration in the Tred Avon, we will make every effort to award a contract by the end of this year, so work could proceed next fiscal year,” he said. “If DNR requests that we do not proceed, we have to consider how our currently-available federal funding will best be used – whether that means carrying it over into the next fiscal year or sending additional funds to our sister district in Norfolk to help restore oysters in Virginia’s portion of the Bay.”

How we got here

Oyster restoration had been happening in Maryland for decades, but most of the time, the work was confined to small, barren parts of the bottom that the watermen didn’t want for harvest. That changed under former Gov. Martin O’Malley, who decided in 2010 to dedicate 24 percent of the Maryland Chesapeake Bay’s bottom to sanctuaries for oysters. At the same time, O’Malley pushed for oyster aquaculture to be legal in every county, and set aside several million dollars in state money to help watermen who wanted to get into oyster farming.

The Harris Creek project alone was many times larger than any previous state restoration project, according to a Bay Journal story in 2014.

“We are using science for site selection better than we have in the past,” Stephanie Westby, oyster project coordinator with NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office, told Bay Journal editor Karl Blankenship. “The results we’ve seen have been very, very promising, and we are using good techniques, but if the funding dries up, that would make it difficult,” Westby said.

Two years later, long-term monitoring of some restored reefs documented densities of 25 oysters per square meter or greater, officials have said..

But Maryland’s watermen were never enthusiastic about the restoration projects in the Talbot-Dorchester corridor of the Chesapeake, which has historically yielded much of the state’s harvest.

Maryland officials spent about $6.3 million to acquire fossilized shell from Florida, in large part because conventional oyster shell is expensive and hard to procure. In May 2014, watermen attempted to block state contractors from spreading the shell, complaining it would kill crabs and make the area unharvestable.

Having gained no traction with O’Malley, the watermen hoped the new Republican governor would be more sympathetic. Larry Hogan has pledged to end the “War on Watermen.”

Unconvinced by the scientific work showing improved growth in the Talbot tributaries, a delegation of watermen went to the Department of Natural Resources in the fall with a comparison of the spat-fall from Harris Creek and Broad Creek that suggested to them that the restoration was not working. Broad Creek had been open to harvest and had better spat sets, they pointed out.

Managers and scientists with the department declined at that time to stop the project.

The watermen then met with Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who supported their request for a stoppage.

“We believe there is a better way to do this,” Talbot County Watermen’s Association president Bunky Chance, part of the group that met with Rutherford, said in an interview last month. “We don’t think this is in the best interests of the resource.”

Bay Journal staff writer Tim Wheeler contributed to this story.