Stocked with more than 2 billion hatchery-spawned oysters, Harris Creek became the crown jewel of an ambitious effort to revive the Chesapeake Bay’s depleted shellfish population. As it was being completed last fall, scientists, politicians and others made pilgrimages to the Choptank River tributary to witness Maryland and the federal government working together to restore 375 acres of reefs with young bivalves.

Now, the “largest oyster restoration project on the planet,” as one environmental group called it, has become a timeworn example of another sort – of political intervention in the stewardship of the Bay’s iconic shellfish.

Contending that the $26 million Harris Creek makeover was a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money, Maryland’s watermen have won a halt in reef construction in another Choptank tributary, the Tred Avon River.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had planned to build 8 acres of oyster reefs this winter in the Tred Avon, adding to 16 acres put in the river last year near St. Michaels. But federal officials agreed to postpone the work at the request of Maryland’s natural resources secretary, Mark Belton, after a delegation of watermen took their complaints to Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford about the methods and materials being used to bring back the Bay’s oysters.

Though ostensibly just a delay of several months, the holdup has cast a cloud over the future of restoration efforts in Maryland — and perhaps even the entire Bay.

“We have a commitment from the state of Maryland and the commonwealth of Virginia to restore 10 tributaries,” said Mark Bryer of The Nature Conservancy. “The halting of this one starts to put that timeline in jeopardy, because it takes a long time to get these projects going.”

The Corps’ Baltimore District, which was overseeing the Tred Avon work, responded to the state’s insistence on a delay by shifting $1 million from that project to its sister Corps office in Norfolk for oyster restoration work in Virginia.

And now, the federal funding that has underwritten most of the reef construction in both Maryland and Virginia may be cut off, at least for now. For the first time in years, President Obama did not include any money for the Corps’ Bay oyster restoration work in the fiscal 2017 budget he has sent to Congress.

The Department of Natural Resources secretary said the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan remains committed to the restoration effort, but just wants time to complete a review of the state’s overall approach to managing oysters. He told lawmakers in February that there had been “concerns” expressed by “stakeholders” but promised the review would be finished by July.

“This is applied science on a very large scale,” Belton said. “It’s cost tens of millions of dollars so far…I believe it’s just a prudent caution for taxpayers to make sure that we’re spending money on the right things as we’re moving forward.”

Watermen have been unhappy with the restoration efforts from the get-go. Their complaints range from the way reefs are built to the materials used. But one of the biggest bones of contention is that the reefs and the hatchery-produced oysters placed on them are being put in state-designated sanctuaries permanently off-limits to harvest. “This project is going to hang us,” said Bunky Chance, president of the Talbot County Watermen’s Association. “It has negatively impacted our community to the nth degree.”

Environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers have accused the Hogan administration of ignoring scientific advice and putting at risk a key obligation under the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement — which called for restoring oyster populations in 10 tributaries by 2025. Prince George’s County Sen. Paul Pinsky, a leading environmental advocate in the General Assembly, charged that the Tred Avon delay was “an effort to pander to some people who wanted to stop the project.”


Rebuilding oyster reefs

The Bay’s oysters need help – on that, everyone would agree. Once so plentiful that Maryland watermen harvested 14 million bushels in a single year, the Chesapeake’s oysters have been decimated over the past century and a half by overfishing, pollution and disease. Scientists figure they’re at less than 1 percent of their historic number.

For years, scientists tried to reverse that trend with a variety of small-scale restoration efforts scattered around the Bay, without making any real headway. The problem, scientists ultimately suggested, was a lack of places for oysters to live. The reefs of old oyster shells on which young oysters need to settle had been worn down by harvesting and silted over, to the point that only a small fraction remained.

To try jump-starting the oyster’s recovery, those engaged in the long-running restoration effort settled on a strategy of rebuilding extensive reef networks in one tributary at a time. In Maryland, where natural oyster reproduction couldn’t be counted on to colonize the new reefs, the plan was to “carpet-bomb” them with baby oysters spawned in a hatchery, as one scientist put it.

The Tred Avon is the third of Maryland’s tributaries — after Harris Creek and the Little Choptank River — to be targeted for large-scale oyster restoration under the joint federal-state plan agreed to in 2012. 

That blueprint, worked out in a lengthy collaboration with scientists and environmentalists, called for bringing back an “abundant, self-sustaining” oyster population in the Bay for its ecological importance, not solely its value as seafood. The bivalves filter the water and remove nutrient pollution, and the reefs they form provide habitat for fish and other marine creatures.

The plan calls for building a total of 83 acres of reefs in the Tred Avon, at an estimated cost of $11.4 million. Harris Creek, the first tributary chosen for intensive restoration, was completed last year. The second, the Little Choptank, originally slated to get 440 acres restored, is about one-third finished. The state has yet to pick the other two tributaries it has committed to work on.

Chance and other watermen say they don’t oppose the idea of restoring oysters, just the way it’s now being done.

“We’re 110 percent in favor of restoration, but let’s do it right,” said Rob Newberry, president and founder of the Delmarva Fisheries Association. He, Chance and Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, were the watermen who appealed to the state’s lieutenant governor after DNR officials initially rebuffed their bid to halt the Tred Avon work.


Sanctuaries under fire

Among their grievances, watermen object to the use of granite rocks and fossil shell from Florida in reef construction. Though oyster shells are widely believed to be the best base upon which baby oysters, or spat, can settle and grow, the restoration effort has been forced to use alternatives because the depletion of oysters has also meant there’s a shortage of shells, which are also in demand by a growing oyster farming industry.

Watermen complain that the rocks interfere with crabbing and fishing, and that the fossil shell used in Harris Creek and the Little Choptank was full of water-fouling silt. Officials have countered that oysters appear to be growing on reefs made of each.

But the main issue watermen have is with the state’s vast network of oyster sanctuaries, created in 2010 by former Gov. Martin O’Malley. O’Malley, a Democrat who also overhauled Maryland’s oyster management, made it a priority to restore oysters for their ecological value. Toward that end, he expanded the state’s network of sanctuaries that were off-limits to commercial harvest, from 9 percent of the suitable Bay bottom to 24 percent.

Some of those sanctuaries, such as Harris Creek, the Little Choptank and Tred Avon were selected to see if large-scale restoration efforts could jump-start oyster populations. Most of the rest were to be left alone to see if, when left unharvested, oyster populations might begin to recover on their own.

Watermen contend that O’Malley took many of their most productive oyster reefs. And though their harvest increased in the years that followed, to 400,000 bushels last year, they have been lobbying to reopen at least some of the sanctuaries since Hogan took office in 2015. Hogan, a Republican, had vowed during his campaign to end the state’s “war on watermen,” as he called it.

“There are thousands of acres of sanctuary bottom in the Chesapeake Bay that are lying dormant,” Chance said. Even though scientists say there’s no evidence to support it, watermen believe oysters survive and reproduce better if their reefs are regularly worked over by a dredge or tongs.

In the case of Harris Creek, the delegation that met with the lieutenant governor contended that even though it had been seeded with billions of baby oysters, it has been outperformed in reproduction by a neighboring Choptank tributary, Broad Creek, which is regularly harvested by watermen.

The DNR’s annual Baywide survey of oyster bars has regularly found much higher rates of baby bivalves, or spat, settled on reefs in Broad Creek than in Harris Creek, which was set aside as a sanctuary in 2010.

“You know,” Chance said, “the stated goal of this sanctuary is to jump-start the reproduction process so that essentially the sanctuary can become an incubator, so to speak, for oyster reproduction that would not only benefit the sanctuary but would spread out through the Chesapeake Bay.” But he contended that watermen’s observations and the DNR’s own data indicate that’s not happening.

Scientists say there’s good reason to hope that large-scale reef restoration in sanctuaries might produce benefits for neighboring waters. But counting baby oysters, or spat, on a reef is no real indicator of how the reef is doing, they say, because it’s impossible to tell if those spat came from that reef or another — or even from another creek or river nearby. Oysters begin life as free-floating larvae, and drift for two to three weeks before settling to the bottom.

“The real measure of success or failure,” said Lisa Kellogg, senior research scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, should be “the characteristics of the reef.”

Before the Harris Creek and other large-scale efforts got under way, scientists worked out metrics for gauging success. It included tallying the number and density of oysters on the reef and looking for different shell sizes, indicating multiple generations of bivalves had taken hold there. Those would indicate oysters are surviving and reproducing, biologists agreed.

Scientists planned to check on the reefs three and six years after they’d been seeded, waiting see if the baby bivalves had survived the ever-present diseases and reached maturity.

Only a little more than a fourth of the 375 acres of restored reef in Harris Creek have been in place long enough to gauge the survival of their new oysters, according to Stephanie Westby, coordinator of the oyster restoration effort for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office. NOAA is one of the agencies involved in the federal-state restoration partnership.

Those 102 acres got checked over the fall and winter. While the results are still being analyzed, Westby said, scientists have determined that half of the reefs sampled had at least 50 oysters per square meter — the goal biologists had set before the project began — while the other half had met or exceeded the minimum threshold of 15 oysters per square meter.

“It’s all good news. We didn’t find any bad news,” Westby said.

“One survey does not a success story make,” cautioned Westby’s boss, Peyton Robertson, director of the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office. “We are just getting started; we’ll have to determine over time if it works. But it is an encouraging sign, and we hope it will continue to perform that way…It helps me sleep at night knowing we’ve made a good investment with the funding so far.”


Less disease in sanctuaries

Watermen also contend that the sanctuaries are havens for disease. MSX and Dermo have twice devastated the Bay’s oysters — in the 1960s and again in the 1980s and ’90s — killing the young before they can reach marketable size or maturity. 

Dermo is still found in many, if not most bivalves, but the disease intensity has abated considerably in recent years. Recent DNR oyster bar surveys have found relatively few “boxes,” — dead oysters with empty, gaping shells — in the Upper Bay. And in the recent check of Harris Creek, Westby said, “We’re seeing incredibly low mortality.”

The reefs also show early promise of fulfilling their ecological role as fish habitat. Kellogg, who’s checking in periodically on Harris Creek, said she’s encouraged by what she’s seen in underwater video of some of the reefs.

“There’s plenty of evidence of other organisms, she said. “Some sites are covered in little sea squirts, and there’s gobies and blennies around.”

Federal officials and scientists say they are sharing those findings with their counterparts in Maryland, and hope the DNR takes that into account in assessing whether to go forward with the Tred Avon work. But now, the earliest the reef project could begin is late this year.

Of the Maryland restoration projects so far, Harris Creek is the only one completed, though it’s still getting some tweaks. The Corps sent a contractor back out in late February to “level off” some reefs that were apparently built too high in the water, becoming navigation hazards. Belton told lawmakers that several watermen and recreational boaters had complained their vessels were damaged by running over them.


Did squabbles kill funds?

Virginia’s restoration projects have been smaller in scale, but none is complete yet. A combined 234 acres of reefs have been built in the Great Wicomico, Lafayette, Lynnhaven and Piankatank rivers, according to the Susan Conner, chief of planning and policy for the Corps’ Norfolk District.

Another 20–30 acres of reefs are planned to be built this year in the Piankatank, Conner said.

But with the Obama administration not proposing any new funding for oyster restoration, the money could run out in the next year. “It’s not whether we’re going to spend money in Maryland or Virginia,” said Robertson. “It’s what’s going to be available, period.”

For now, there’s about $3.6 million left in the coffers of the Baltimore Corps to work on oyster restoration in Maryland, according to spokeswoman Sarah Gross. That should be enough to build the 8 acres of reefs in the Tred Avon that are now on hold — assuming Maryland agrees to go ahead — as well as to finish planning for more reefs in shallower water in the river, and to install some of them, anywhere from 10–30 acres. But without a new infusion from Congress, there won’t be enough to finish that job, or the others.

In Virginia, before the transfer, there was only $2.1 million left, which will be essentially used up in the Piankatank this year, Conner said. The money from Baltimore will pay to expand the reef acreage there, she said.

NOAA also contributes funding for restoration work in each state. Maryland’s share this year has been about $1.7 million, with much of it supporting the hatchery production and planting of oysters on the reefs. That funding level appears unlikely to change in fiscal 2017, Robertson said.

It’s not clear why the Obama administration didn’t propose to give the Corps, which does the bulk of the reef construction, any more funding next year. 

Gross attributed the lack of new funding to competition within the Corps nationally for money to do environmental restoration projects of all kinds.

But Conner suggested the cutoff may be related to friction in the Bay community over how and where to build reefs.

“We have not every year been able to spend all our (allotted) funding on oysters because it’s such a contentious issue with stakeholders,” she said.

Even in Virginia, there was a lull in restoration work for a while because of a disagreement over whether restored reefs had to be permanently off-limits to harvest. State lawmakers barred the Virginia Marine Resources Commission from spending any of its money on sanctuary reefs, and the Corps needed matching dollars from outside the federal government to use its funds. The impasse was eventually resolved.

“Now,” Conner noted, “we’re at a point we can execute, but it’s been perceived in past years that we were not.” If an agency doesn’t spend all the money it’s been budgeted, she explained, “it generally doesn’t bode well for getting new funding.”


The politics of spending

Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-MD, vows to do what he can to plug the looming gap. “We will do everything possible to try to restore those funding levels in the appropriations process,” said his spokesman, Tim Zink, “and make absolutely certain that oyster restoration in the Tred Avon and throughout the Bay watershed continues as planned.”

In the past, Bay champions like Cardin and Maryland’s senior senator, Barbara Mikulski, have been able to secure the funding from Washington, DC, needed for projects like this. But Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said he’s worried that may no longer be the case. Congress has changed its rules to ban “earmarking,” the practice where senators or congressmen slip money into appropriations bills for projects in their state or district.

“It’s not like the old days,” Boesch said.

Even if Congress does give the Corps some money for reef construction in fiscal 2017, there’s a larger long-term funding hurdle. Congress authorized $60 million for the Bay oyster restoration effort, and so far $51 million has been spent. Finishing all 10 tributaries will almost certainly take more, though no one’s quite sure yet how much. Advocates are urging an increase in authorized federal spending to $85 million.

This isn’t the first time that politics have gotten mixed up with oysters. Maryland lawmakers began passing laws affecting the oyster fishery in 1820, according to Victor Kennedy, an oyster researcher with UMCES.

Early on, the measures passed represented “an effort to conserve a once-bounteous resource,” he and a co-author wrote in a paper published in 1983. “However, in the last century, the main effort has been to appease oyster fishermen, a vociferous minority in the state.”

Kennedy, now an emeritus, said the political tinkering with oysters has continued, though with one change.

“Probably every governor for the last half-dozen (administrations) or more felt they needed to be involved,” he said. Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Republican, sided with watermen who sought to introduce Asian oysters in the Bay, he noted.

Not all of the political involvement of late has been to curry favor with watermen, though. O’Malley notably tilted toward ecological restoration and private aquaculture. Now, some lawmakers in Annapolis are pushing back against a perceived retreat from that approach, with a bill that would prevent the DNR from doing anything to expand the oyster harvest until University of Maryland scientists can say what’s sustainable.

“We’re trying to get our arms around this problem,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Roger Manno, D-Montgomery County.

With just a handful of cosponsors, the bill’s prospects seem dim. But Manno contends it’s a moderate response to the continued depletion of the Bay’s oysters.

“I think we ought to try one or two last things before closing down the fishery,” he said.


Finding common ground

Amid all the push and pull, some scientists are launching a different kind of effort, one aimed at finding common ground, if there is any. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, they’re bringing together a group of watermen, oyster farmers, environmentalists and others.

The goal of Oyster Futures, as the five-year project is called, is to try to forge a broad consensus on how to manage the wild fishery in the Choptank River and at the same time restore oysters there for their ecological benefits.

“I haven’t heard anyone enthusiastic about how things are going right now,” said Elizabeth North, associate professor of oceanography at UM’s Horn Point laboratory, and the effort’s leader. “I think we have a really great opportunity to find something that will work better.”

By design, watermen and seafood industry representatives make up most of the 16-member stakeholder group. But North said that the ground rules require at least three-fourths of them to agree on any policy recommendations, so at least a few of the non-industry representatives would have to be in accord. The DNR’s Belton has promised to consider whatever the group agrees on.

It will be a challenge, North acknowledged, to get accord on how or whether to change the current no-harvest sanctuaries, but she believes it’s worth trying. And while there have been previous attempts to get agreement, she said none has tried this kind of approach or been as broadly inclusive of the seafood industry.

Neighboring Delaware and Virginia manage their oysters differently from Maryland, she said, adding that she’s optimistic the group can find some areas on which it can agree.

“The resource is very depleted, but the Chesapeake Bay is a very productive estuary,” North said. “It’s huge, and there’s a lot of room for bringing that resource back.”