The Maryland Department of Natural Resources gave the green light Friday to resuming federally funded oyster restoration work on the Eastern Shore, which has been in limbo for the past seven months since watermen complained about it.
DNR Secretary Mark Belton notified the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the Hogan administration wants to go ahead with planned construction of 8 acres of reefs in the Tred Avon River, a tributary of the Choptank River near Oxford.
The project, a $1 million part of a larger planned restoration, had been on hold since last winter after watermen objected to it, prompting the Hogan administration to request a delay. Corps officials had said they needed to hear from Maryland by Friday if the reef construction contract was to be let in time to make use of federal funds still available in this year’s budget.
The go-ahead from DNR follows the recommendation from its reshuffled Oyster Advisory Commission, which after extensive debate gave a grudging nod to the 8-acre project, with some conditions. The 23-member panel was reorganized recently by the Hogan administration, giving watermen and their allies a greater voice on it.
The Tred Avon is one of three Bay tributaries that Maryland has targeted so far for large-scale efforts to restore oysters, which over the past century have dwindled to about 1 percent of their historic level through overharvesting, pollution and disease. Under the latest Bay restoration agreement signed two years ago, the state has pledged to revive oyster populations and their habitat in five Bay tributaries by 2025.
But watermen objected bitterly to the state’s decision six years ago to vastly expand its network of sanctuaries, where oysters cannot be harvested. And they contended that the recently completed, $26 million restoration of oysters in Harris Creek, another Choptank tributary that was made into a sanctuary, had been a costly failure.
At the behest of watermen, Belton had asked the Corps to hold up the Tred Avon reef construction until DNR could complete its long-planned review of how the state’s oyster sanctuaries have fared since their expansion in 2010.
DNR’s review, released Sunday night, concluded that oysters were generally growing and surviving well in the sanctuaries, while the overall size and abundance of bivalves in waters regularly harvested by watermen have declined in recent years. The department suggested taking some of the less productive sanctuaries and reopening them to harvest.
Until the report’s release, the advisory commission had seemed deadlocked over whether to proceed with the Tred Avon restoration, which is federally funded. The Corps has already built 16 acres of reefs in the river, and ultimately plans to restore 146 acres of oysters there, at a projected overall cost of $11 million.
The advisory panel ultimately agreed to recommend proceeding, but with certain conditions — that watermen be more closely consulted on future work; that DNR seek additional sources of old oyster shells with which to replenish reefs; and that the panel should get to review any future plans to build reefs with rocks. Watermen have complained that rock reefs built in Harris Creek are damaging their fishing gear and vessels.
In a message to Col. Ed Chamberlayne, the Corps’ Baltimore District commander, the DNR secretary said state officials are “excited” about continuing the restoration work, and he thanked Chamberlayne for his “flexibility” in waiting for the department to finish its review and consult with the advisory commission.
The Corps is now seeking public comment on the next stage of the Tred Avon restoration plan – building reefs and planting hatchery-reared oysters on up to 53 acres of river bottom in shallower waters, ranging from 6.5 feet to 9 feet in depth. A public hearing is scheduled Tuesday, Aug. 9, from 6 p.m. to 8 pm. at the Talbot Community Center, 10028 Ocean Gateway Drive, Easton, MD.
Written comments also may be submitted until Aug. 19 via email, to MD.OysterRestoration@usace.army.mil or via regular mail to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, Attn: Angie Sowers, 10 South Howard Street, Ste. 11600 Baltimore, MD 21201