Bay Journal

New report finds ample oyster growth on restored Eastern Shore reefs

Survey by NOAA also detects indications of poaching in Harris Creek sanctuary, but officials say not enough to undermine project

  • By Timothy B. Wheeler on July 27, 2016
A clump of hatchery-produced oysters recovered from a Harris Creek reef during last fall's survey.  (Emily French, Oyster Recovery Partnership) Oysters growing on a reef in the Harris Creek sanctuary, July 2016.  (Dave Harp) NOAA lead hydrographer Andy McGowan tends to gear used for surveying Harris Creek bottom. (Dave Harp) Jay Lazar, field program coordinator for NOAA's bathymetry survey of Harris Creek restoration, consults with lead hydrographer Andy McGowan on readouts of bottom profile. (Dave Harp)

With the Hogan administration still on the fence about resuming federally funded oyster reef restoration in Maryland’s Tred Avon River, a new report says large-scale restoration work completed on a nearby Eastern Shore waterway is doing well so far.

The report, released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, concludes that a dozen restored oyster reefs checked last fall in Harris Creek show "healthy restoration," despite indications some of its oysters have been poached.

All the reefs in the Choptank River tributary were found to be harboring at least the minimally acceptable densities of 15 oysters per square meter on a third of their surface, NOAA said, while half had 50 or more bivalves per square meter -- the restoration effort goal. Additionally, sampling found varying sized oysters, indicating multiple generations of animals growing on the reefs and a sign that the reefs had attracted natural reproduction.

“Bottom line, all signs are, it’s looking relatively good,” said Peyton Robertson, director of NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay office.

However, surveys of the 102-acres of Harris Creek reefs seeded in 2012 found circumstantial evidence that some of their oysters had been illegally taken, the report said. Harris Creek has been a sanctuary closed to commercial harvest since 2010. The multi-beam sonar technology NOAA used for its reef surveys can spot variations in the bottom, and furrows detected in the reef typical of those made by an oyster dredge were subsequently confirmed by underwater video.

“It hasn’t been so extensive that it seriously damaged the overall effort,” Robertson said of the apparent poaching. But he added, “It’s something that if unchecked, or if it became pervasive, it would certainly negatively affect the restoration effort.”

In January 2014, the Natural Resources Police charged four men with power dredging for oysters inside the Harris Creek sanctuary.  Another two men were charged with oystering inside the sanctuary in December 2014.  Since then, according to NRP spokeswoman Candy Thomson, authorities have received seven calls reporting suspected illegal oystering in the creek, but police were unable to observe illegal activity or apprehend anyone.

Conservationists in Maryland have long complained that poaching is a problem, both on sanctuary reefs and, increasingly, in waters leased for aquaculture. The Natural Resources Police watches for such activity, but the force has added homeland security and seafood inspections to its purview and can’t be everywhere at once.

The 12 reefs, which state contractors seeded in 2012 with newly hatched oysters, or “spat,” represent only the first phase of a $26 million oyster restoration project finished in Harris Creek last summer. In all, more than 350 acres were restored, with existing reefs augmented with stones or clam shells or both. They were then seeded with 2 billion baby oysters produced by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Hatchery.

The NOAA report comes as Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources seeks advice from a newly reconstituted advisory commission on whether go ahead with controversial reef restoration in the Tred Avon, another Choptank tributary.  The Hogan administration got reef construction halted there last winter after some watermen complained the Harris Creek project had been a failure. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had built 16 acres of reefs in the Tred Avon, and was about to construct 8 more acres when asked to stop. As a result of that request, the Corps took $1 million in federal money that would have gone to Maryland oyster work and redirected it to Virginia.

Until this month, the DNR’s 23-member Oyster Advisory Commission had not met since Hogan was elected last year. Its membership was revamped to add new members who represent the oyster industry, seafood processors, watermen and Eastern Shore legislators. The Commission includes representatives from NOAA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a few environmental scientists. But the number of scientists and environmental advocates dropped since 2008, when Martin O’Malley was governor.

After a long meeting Monday, commission members could not agree on whether to go ahead with the next phase of the Tred Avon restoration, which the Army Corps has funded and managed. The commission plans to meet again Monday, as the Corps has said it needs to know by Aug. 5 in order to meet budgetary requirements for issuing the reef construction contract by the end of summer. The Corps spent $1.4 million building reefs in the Tred Avon last year, and expects the 8-acre reef work to cost about $1 million more.

Three years ago, the federal and state agencies agreed to restore a total of 146 acres in the river. But watermen, who objected to the loss of traditional harvest areas when the state expanded its network of oyster sanctuaries in 2010, complained about the expense and methods of these large-scale restoration efforts. They question the efficacy of the Harris Creek restoration, and contend that the size and material of constructed reefs has damaged boats and equipment.

Those objections came to a head last winter, when a watermen’s delegation appealed to Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford after DNR officials refused to seek a halt in the Tred Avon work.  DNR Secretary Mark Belton subsequently asked the Army Corps to delay the next reef construction until his department concluded a review of the state’s overall oyster management, including the public harvest, aquaculture and its extensive network of sanctuaries. That review is to be released on Friday, DNR officials said this week

Under the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed agreement, Maryland and Virginia jointly agreed to restore oyster populations and habitat in 10 Chesapeake tributaries by 2025.  After a long and public process, Maryland selected Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River and the Tred Avon as the first three of its five waterways to be targeted; while the Harris Creek project is finished, the Little Choptank and Tred Avon are only partially complete. Costs for completing all three are projected to total nearly $44 million.

About Timothy B. Wheeler
Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Timothy B. Wheeler

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