The Maryland Department of Natural Resources gave the green light this week [ED. NOTE: AUGUST 5] for 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 eight 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 on August 2, which after extensive debate gave a grudging nod to continuing the Tred Avon 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. 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 July 31, 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, at a cost of $1.4 million, and ultimately plans to restore 146 acres of oysters there, with a projected overall cost of $11 million. Advocates for the restoration work have warned since last winter that if the state did not restart the Tred Avon project, the remaining federal funds could be shifted to Virginia -- and the Corps' did in fact transfer $1 million to Virginia shortly after the Tred Avon work was put on hold. Some warned failure to go ahead also could jeopardize getting any more federal funding for oyster restoration.

The DNR's Oyster Advisory Commission made its recommendation contingent on watermen being consulted on all future restoration projects, on the state seeking new sources of oyster shells to replenish reefs, and on virtually barring the use of granite rocks to rebuild underwater habitat for the bivalves. With seafood industry interests heavily represented, the commission also declared it wanted to set a firm deadline on deciding whether to re-open some of the state’s oyster sanctuaries for harvest, as a new Department of Natural Resources report has suggested.

Those conditions appeared to overcome objections some watermen and their allies voiced on the commission to continuing the federally funded Tred Avon project. They had complained that rock-based reefs built in nearby Harris Creek, another tributary of the Choptank, had snagged their gear and damaged their vessels. Harris Creek has already undergone extensive restoration work, with 350 acres of reefs replenished and planted with 2 billion hatchery reared oysters, at a cost of $27 million.

After considerable debate at the August 1 public meeting, DNR Secretary Mark Belton declared a consensus had been reached to resume the Tred Avon reef project. But Maryland Delegate John Mautz piped in to say he could not go along with it, even with conditions. The Republican lawmaker’s district includes Talbot and Dorchester counties, where oyster restoration work has been concentrated to date, drawing watermen’s complaints.

Rob Newberry, head of the Delmarva Fisheries Association, rose in the audience and denounced the decision. He called it a “travesty” to let the Tred Avon restoration go ahead without taking more time to review the DNR’s five-year review of how oysters are doing in the state’s sanctuaries and in areas regularly fished by watermen. The Delmarva Fisheries Association is a relatively new organization that has close ties to the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, which has lobbied to focus the Bay cleanup on the sediment buildup behind Conowingo Dam.

The DNR's 945-page review, released less than 24 hours before the commission meeting, found oysters doing well in much of the state’s sanctuary network -- although the overall volume of bivalves in areas regularly harvested appears to have declined. The report suggests reopening some sanctuaries for harvest, but only after replenishing their reefs.

“We’ve been buffaloed on this,” Newberry said. He called the DNR report “a piece of junk,” arguing that oysters have reproduced in abundance naturally where watermen have been able to work the reefs regularly. Studies to date have not supported that assertion, but he contended oyster populations in the Honga River, a Dorchester County tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, proved his case.

Robert Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association -- and part of the delegation that had appealed to the governor’s office before to delay the Tred Avon project -- said after the commission meeting that he could live with its resumption of the Tred Avon project, given the commissions conditions. And he made clear he was looking forward to the promised commission discussion about future restoration projects and the reopening of other sanctuaries to harvest.

Reef restoration is done only in sanctuaries, to ensure that the billions of hatchery-reared oysters placed on the rebuilt reefs are free from harvest pressure to grow and reproduce. Such large-scale restoration was agreed to six years ago in response to an environmental impact study finding that the Bay’s oyster population had been seriously depleted and much of its reef habitat lost over the decades to historical overharvesting, disease and siltation.

In 2010, the state overhauled its regulations to expand its oyster sanctuaries, putting 24 percent of the remaining viable habitat off limits to harvest. It also reformed its laws and rules to encourage more private leasing of the Bay for oyster farming, or aquaculture. But watermen objected to the sanctuary expansion, and those who oyster in middle Eastern Shore waters complained that setting aside the three Choptank tributaries for restoration had deprived them of some of their best areas. Then complaints arose about the methods being used to rebuild reefs, and the large investments of public funds.

“I guess we made the best out of a bad situation,” he said of the Tred Avon project. But, he added, “We’ve got bigger things to work on.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, meanwhile, called on Hogan to accept the commission’s recommendation and proceed with the Tred Avon restoration. In a statement issued Tuesday, Alison Prost, the foundation’s Maryland executive director, said the environmental group would fight any reopening of sanctuaries.

“By all measures,” Prost said, “Maryland’s innovative program to help oysters make a comeback in the Chesapeake is working. The public is overwhelmingly in favor of the plan. Restoring oysters to the Bay will mean cleaner water, more fish and aquatic life, and, in time, a more bountiful harvest of oysters. Let’s stay the course.”