A Maryland commission last night gave a grudging, conditional nod to going ahead with oyster restoration work in the Tred Avon River, which had drawn fire from the state’s watermen. It remains to be seen, however, if the Hogan administration will follow the advisory panel’s recommendation, as an Eastern Shore legislator and one seafood industry representative promptly voiced opposition.

After nearly 4 hours of discussion and debate, the Department of Natural Resources’ Oyster Advisory Commission agreed without a formal vote to recommend resumption of reef construction in the Tred Avon, a tributary of the Choptank River. Work planned there by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been put on hold last winter at the behest of the Hogan administration after watermen objected.

The Corps is handling the Tred Avon project as part of a $44 million state and federally funded restoration effort on three Maryland tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Corps officials said they need a decision by Friday so they can obligate federal funds left in the agency’s budget this year.  They have about $2 million available for oyster restoration, and the 8-acre reef construction could use half of that. The Corps built 16 acres of reefs last year.

Advocates for the restoration work have warned that if the state does not give the Corps the green light, those remaining federal funds could be shifted to Virginia. The Baltimore District already has transferred $1 million to that state after the Tred Avon work was put on hold last winter. Some warned failure to go ahead also could jeopardize getting any more federal funding for oyster restoration. The Corps has spent $1.4 million so far, but the overall plan to restore 146 acres in the river is projected to cost $11 million.

The 23-member panel 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. The group, with seafood industry interests heavily represented, 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 DNR 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 reefs built in nearby Harris Creek had snagged their gear and damaged their vessels. Harris Creek is another Choptank tributary that 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 hearing no one object, Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton declared a consensus had been reached to resume the Tred Avon reef project. But Del. John Mautz piped up 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.

Then, as the meeting drew to a close, 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.

DNR released the 945-page report Sunday night, less than 24 hours before the commission meeting. It found oysters doing well in much of the state’s sanctuary network, while the overall volume of bivalves in areas regularly harvested has begun to decline. 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.

Newberry was one of three watermen who appealed to Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford last winter after DNR officials initially refused their request to stop the Tred Avon restoration until the 5-year review of sanctuaries was finished. Belton subsequently asked the Corps to delay the work.

The Tred Avon is one of three Bay tributaries that Maryland has selected so far for large-scale oyster restoration efforts under the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.  Maryland and Virginia have pledged to revive oyster populations and habitat in five waterways each.  Maryland has completed work in Harris Creek, but restoration in the Tred Avon and the third river, the Little Choptank, are not finished.

The work is only done 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 Mid-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.

Debate over the Tred Avon restoration seesawed throughout the commission meeting Monday night. At one point, Jason Schmidt, head of the Talbot Seafood Heritage Association, a watermen’s group, said his members didn’t want any more reef construction in the Tred Avon, and that the state should shift its oyster restoration efforts to another part of the Bay.

Belton explained, though, that the Tred Avon would have to remain as a sanctuary, and the reefs built with federal funds could not be harvested. And he said the Corps told him they had no authority to let the state reimburse the federal government for the funds spent in the river already and reopen those replenished reefs.

Schmidt, seeking other concessions, pressed the Army Corps to agree to prospect for oyster shells buried in the bottom that could be dredged up for use in rebuilding reefs. Oyster shells provide the best base for attracting newly hatched oyster larvae, he and others argued, so the state should use them wherever possible in rebuilding reefs. But with commercial harvests still far below what they were decades ago, there’s a shortage of shells for restoration work.

(For that reason, the O’Malley administration spent several million dollars to bring in fossilized shell from Florida. It proved to be another unpopular decision, as watermen complained the shell was full of sediment and would cover the areas where they oystered. At one point, the watermen boats blocked state workers from laying the shell down in the Little Choptank.)

Jim Mullin, executive director of the Maryland Oystermen Association, expressed appreciation to the Hogan administration for listening to the seafood industry’s concerns. He contended they had been largely ignored by the administration of former Gov. Martin O’Malley, which had expanded sanctuaries and embarked on the large-scale restoration.

Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said he wanted more time to review the DNR report. Then he suggested that the only way he could accept going ahead with the Tred Avon work would be if the state pledged seek permits to dredge buried shells from several historic reef sites on the Bay bottom.

Brown also pressed for an outright ban on the use of granite rocks in any reef construction. While supported by other watermen, that stance drew objections from other panel members.

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, agreed that given the problems watermen have had with rock reefs, authorities needed to be cautious about building any more.  But he pointed out that monitoring to date shows the rocks do well at attracting new oyster larvae, which after hatching spend the first couple weeks floating in the water before settling to the bottom.

“We have to decide, are we about bringing oysters back in the Bay or not?” Boesch said. “If stone works, why exclude it?”

The panel agreed only to require commission review of any new projects that would use rocks.

After the meeting, Belton said he expected to give the Corps an answer by Friday, though he declined to say what it would be. He said earlier that the commission’s recommendation is important, but the final say belongs to Gov. Larry Hogan.

Brown, who was among the watermen’s delegation that had appealed to the governor’s office before to delay the Tred Avon project, said Tuesday he could live with its resumption under these circumstances. And he made clear he was looking forward to the promised commission discussion about future restoration projects and reopening other sanctuaries to harvest.

“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. A public hearing is scheduled Aug. 9 in Easton on the Corps plan to restore another 128 acres in shallow waters of the river.

And 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.”