The shoreline by St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland is lined with riprap, not unlike developed waterfront elsewhere around the Chesapeake Bay. But closer inspection reveals something striking: A cornucopia of oysters, large and small, fill the crevices between the rocks. 

Not far offshore, many more oysters can be seen just below the surface of the clear water, festooning reefs made out of concrete and construction rubble.

“The oysters are thick as can be,” enthused Bob Lewis, executive director of the St. Mary’s River Watershed Association

The upper St. Mary’s River is an oyster sanctuary. Off limits to harvest pressure, this 1,300-acre area is brimming with bivalves. Lewis’s group has poured countless volunteer hours and $250,000 of donations into building new reefs and seeding them with hatchery-spawned, cage-nurtured baby bivalves.

The future of such protected areas is up for debate, though, as the Hogan administration weighs reopening some of Maryland’s 51 oyster sanctuaries to commercial harvest. Watermen say they need more areas to harvest because lethal oyster diseases are flaring up again, cutting into their harvest. And they argue that they deserve access to places like the upper St. Mary’s River. It was one of their most productive spots, they say, before it was made a sanctuary seven years ago.

“All this is workable bottom,” said Craig Kelley, a lifelong waterman and head of the county’s Oyster Committee. “Guys made many a living out of this part of the river, and there’s some guys still upset about it being closed.”

Environmentalists oppose reopening any sanctuaries, arguing that they’re essential to rebuilding the Bay’s depleted oyster population. The watershed association, in fact, wants the state to double down on what it’s already done to boost bivalve habitat in the river, by selecting the St. Mary’s as one of five Bay tributaries to be targeted for large-scale government-funded oyster restoration efforts.

Battle lines are drawn, promising a new chapter in the long history of conflicts over oysters in the Chesapeake. Are oysters for eating, or for the health of the Bay? Are there enough for both?

The Department of Natural Resources in February released a draft plan that would tinker with the state’s sanctuary system by opening all or portions of seven of them. It would create three new ones and expand four existing ones. Chris Judy, the DNR’s shellfish division director, called it a “fair and balanced” approach to competing proposals from watermen and from community and environmental groups. 

On the balance, though, the draft plan would shrink the amount of viable oyster habitat protected from harvest by 11 percent, or nearly 1,000 acres. The St. Mary’s River sanctuary is not among those suggested for opening, but it’s not off the table, either. Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton said the blueprint his staff drew up is just a starting point for discussions, and that DNR’s Oyster Advisory Commission is free to make its own recommendations. 

“I’m hoping there’s something we can work toward to get a consensus,” he told the 23-member commission when the draft plan was presented.

‘Nibbling at the edges’

The DNR’s plan for opening some sanctuaries is basically just “nibbling at the edges” of the system of protected areas, Belton assured lawmakers at a February hearing. It’s intended to give watermen some relief from having their harvestable areas reduced.

He suggested that some sanctuaries where oysters have not shown much improvement the last several years might benefit from a new approach. Under the DNR plan, watermen would be allowed to harvest bivalves from the converted sanctuaries on a rotational basis every four years but would have to invest funds provided them by the state in maintaining the reefs and seeding them with hatchery-spawned young oysters.

But environmentalists and other sanctuary supporters have turned to the legislature, fearing that the administration seems more concerned with helping watermen than safeguarding the oyster population. They are backing a bill to forbid any changes to the protected areas until the DNR completes a legislatively mandated oyster stock assessment at the end of 2018.

Maryland has had oyster sanctuaries since the 1960s, but those early ones were tiny, selected for research or educational purposes. In the 1990s, the state set aside some larger areas to see if they would help rebuild an oyster population that was being steadily ravaged by outbreaks of the diseases MSX and Dermo. But in 2010, former Gov. Martin O’Malley practically tripled the size of the state’s oyster sanctuaries, and the protected areas have been a source of friction ever since.

Scientists estimated then — and still do now — that the Bay’s oyster population had dwindled to 1 percent or less of its historic abundance, the result of overharvesting, habitat loss and diseases. 

While the expansion left watermen with 76 percent of the state’s viable oyster habitat, they complained that it locked them out of many of the best harvest areas, threatening their livelihood.

Even so, the oyster harvest actually increased dramatically after the expansion, going from 107,000 bushels in 2009 to 430,000 by 2014. Watermen and scientists credited that to unusually bountiful oyster reproduction in 2010 and 2012, along with a waning of the diseases that had been killing so many bivalves. 

But with the unexpected bounty, the ranks of watermen harvesting oysters also rebounded, from 570 in 2008 to more than 1,100 by 2014. Meanwhile, reproduction has been mediocre the last four years. With fewer new oysters being spawned, harvests slipped below 400,000 bushels the last two years. 

This year, the harvest is expected to be a lot lower. Dermo, which had abated in the last decade, has returned in recent years, fueled by a lack of rainfall, which increased salinity levels in the Bay. Though not severe overall, die-offs have spiked in some spots, including the lower St. Mary’s River.

“We’re afraid we’re going to lose just about everything,” John Dean, president of the St. Mary’s County watermen’s association, told lawmakers. 

St. Mary’s - past & future

St. Mary’s County, arguably, is where the state’s oyster industry began. Bivalves helped to feed Maryland’s first English colonists who settled at St. Mary’s City in the 1630s. Shellfish have been a part of the local culture and economy ever since. The St. Mary’s River is, in many ways, a microcosm of the broader debate about the worth and future of sanctuaries. 

As recently as 1986, the St. Mary’s River, a tributary of the Potomac River, yielded a commercial oyster harvest of 80,000 bushels, according to DNR figures. But after the diseases hit, the catch plummeted, bottoming out in 2002 with no harvest recorded for two straight years. Harvests recovered a bit after that, but got no higher than 3,400 bushels by 2010, when the upper river was set aside as a sanctuary. That protected area yielded just 341 bushels the year before it was put off-limits to harvest.

Watermen say those numbers don’t tell the whole story. The upper river has been one of the Bay’s best nursery areas, they say, as prevailing winds in summer tended to keep free-floating oyster larvae in the upper river, where they would settle on the reefs. At one time, they say, the state regularly transferred the abundance of juvenile oysters produced in the St. Mary’s to “seed” other less fecund areas.

Even with the sanctuary, oystering has held its own in St. Mary’s County. It trails only Talbot, Somerset and Dorchester counties in the number of harvesters. Average harvests in the lower river more than tripled after the sanctuary was created to nearly 7,000 bushels annually.

The county is also a hotbed of aquaculture. At the end of 2015, St. Mary’s had the highest number of leases in the state to grow oysters and the third most acreage under lease. Many watermen work both the public fishery and their own leases where they plant seed oysters on the bottom and harvest them when they reach market size. 

Craig Kelley is one of those with a foot in each world. “Usually, I wait until the wild grounds are caught up and then start working on mine,” he explained one day recently after unloading a batch of oysters into a watery holding area by his dock near St. Mary’s City.

Kelley says he holds leases on 23 acres of bottom, some in the creek near his dock and some farther out toward the river. While most of the oysters in the lower river have died, he said, he’s only lost about a third in the creek, which he attributes to runoff from the surrounding land keeping the water a little fresher — a condition that keeps the diseases at bay.

When the DNR invited watermen to suggest changes to the sanctuaries, the county’s Oyster Committee proposed carving up most of the protected area in the upper St. Mary’s River into four zones, which would be harvested in a four-year rotation. Kelley said St. Mary’s watermen weren’t clamoring to get into the sanctuary, but since the DNR said it was possible to reopen it to harvest, they jumped at the chance.

“If it was open today,” Kelley said, “instead of grinding their brains out downstream here, (on) the lower half of St. Mary’s, they’d be up there.”

Bill Trossbach is already harvesting oysters in the upper river, because he has leases to grow bivalves in the sanctuary, most grandfathered from before it was created. He has 31 acres in all, in an area he says is the “mother lode” for oyster reproduction.

At age 81, Trossbach said he still gets out on the water regularly to cultivate his oyster bars. He replenishes them with shells for new spat, or baby oysters, to settle on, and he says he’s been rewarded for his labors with a steady crop of marketable bivalves.

He contends that unless the sanctuary is reopened to harvest, the oysters now there will die — either smothered by sediment or starved to death because there are too many too densely crowded together for the available food supply in the water. Even if they don’t die, he says, they’ll be so crowded they’ll grow thin and fragile shells and won’t be marketable. Watermen dismissively refer to such bivalves as “snaps” or “cat’s tongues.” To Trossbach, that’s an intolerable waste.

“The Lord put this natural resource on the Earth for people to use,” he said.

It’s a view shared by many watermen. They argue that oysters will die if their reefs are not regularly worked over to knock sediment off the shells and thin out the population.

Scientists disagree. There’s no evidence, they say, that “cleaning” silt off shells helps oyster survive or improves recruitment of young oysters. If left alone, they’ll grow vertically, so they’re less likely to be affected by silt. And those that survive disease produce more larvae the older they get. They may not be any good for a raw bar or stew, but they have ecological value.

“Our goal should be maximizing the biomass of older oysters,” James McVey, former aquaculture manager for the National Sea Grant College Program, told lawmakers. “That way we get more disease resistance through natural selection.”

Building biomass with concrete

That’s what the St. Mary’s River Watershed Association has been working toward for eight years now. Even before the upper river became a sanctuary, members who were waterfront property owners began raising young oysters in cages hung off their piers. When the bivalves were a year old, they were “planted” in five spots in the newly created protected area.

The association then partnered with St. Mary’s College of Maryland and the Leonardtown Rotary Club to build new oyster reefs intended to mimic the ones English settlers found in 1630, when they reported seeing “whole banks of them” reaching to the surface “so that the ships must avoid them.”

On a five-acre patch of bare river bottom by the college, the group initially placed 600 “reef balls,” round concrete structures typically used for restoring coral reefs in more tropical waters. The association followed that by depositing more than 180 tons of concrete rubble in the river — Kelley helped out with that, as a contractor. They built 38 reefs, some reaching more than 6 feet off the bottom, so that their crests came within a foot of breaking the water’s surface at low tide.

“We wanted them to be experimental to some degree because we were interested, and so was DNR, in alternate substrates” on which oysters might grow, explained Bob Paul, a biology professor at the school who helped design the project. With the steep decline in commercial harvests, there is a serious shortage of oyster shells to use in rebuilding or even maintaining reefs. The project did include some more traditional low reefs built using oyster shells, many of them furnished by local aquaculture businesses.

The association estimates that to date it has invested $254,000 in creating new reef habitat. More than 1,000 volunteers have pitched in to plant more than 30 million spat.

“We have tremendous results,” said Lewis, the group’s director. The oysters appear healthier than those downriver, he said, with some exceeding 4 inches in length. The number of spat showing up on the reefs from natural reproduction actually dwarfs what the association has planted to date.

And the reefs are more than just oyster magnets — they’re drawing fish.

“There’s a lot of white perch in here, especially in May and June,” he said. “I pulled a 28-inch rockfish off of here last September.”

There haven’t been any studies to quantify the impact of the experimental reefs, but Paul said the anecdotal evidence he sees to date is encouraging.

“There’s good recruitment” of baby oysters, the biologist said. “There’s good biodiversity. So [we’re seeing] all the ecological benefits we anticipated. It sort of answers the question, ‘If you build it, will they come?’ And they have.’”

The results are easy to see because the river itself is clearer than it’s been in a long time. Regular measurements have documented visibility up to 10 feet deep in recent years — clarity unheard of two decades ago, the group said.

Watershed association members contend the ecological benefits of the sanctuary would be harmed if any of it was opened now to harvesting, even on a limited basis. They want the state instead to take a page from their book and do more reef construction.

Maryland has committed to conducting large-scale oyster restoration projects in five tributaries as part of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. Work is finished in one, Harris Creek, and under way in two others, the Little Choptank and Tred Avon rivers — projects that have been estimated to cost more than $40 million combined in state and federal funds. 

Maryland still must choose two more places, and a DNR report reviewing the condition of the state’s sanctuaries last year identified the St. Mary’s River as one of two tributaries where oysters are doing so well that further restoration could be achieved with a relatively modest investment of funds.

“It has such good potential,” Paul said. “What we’ve done is a small demonstration project to show it would work. Our hope is that if we could get a good restoration effort going in the sanctuary, that could benefit the whole river.”

Room for compromise?

The DNR Oyster Advisory Commission will begin reviewing the department’s draft plan in mid-March. Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association and a county resident himself, thinks the St. Mary’s River still ought to be in play in deciding what sanctuaries get their boundaries adjusted.

“We need to have part of it opened down there, even if we just get to use it for a seed area,” he said. Brown said he hopes watermen and environmentalists can reach a compromise, if not a consensus.

“Some people might get a little bit upset, but if everybody’s unhappy then we did something,” he said. 

But to environmentalists that sounds like a one-sided compromise. Jeff Horstman, executive director of the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, urged lawmakers at the February hearing to block the DNR move to open sanctuaries. The pressure being felt to open them, he warned, “is not based on science but on the industry’s short-term economic need.”

Craig Kelley, the St. Mary’s oyster committee chairman, sees one way to defuse this zero-sum debate: Get enough oyster shells to build more reefs in public fishery areas. The state has been trying for more than a year to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to permit the excavation of 5 million bushels of fossilized shells in Man O’War shoal near the mouth of the Patapsco River.

With that, Kelley said, watermen might not feel the need as much to get into sanctuaries. 

“If we had shells, we could make all kinds of bottom.”