After a seven-month delay, oyster restoration work is back on track — for the moment, at least — in Maryland’s Tred Avon River sanctuary. But the future course of the state’s efforts to revive the Chesapeake Bay’s iconic bivalves remains very much up in the air, as watermen press for changes to aid their industry.

The Hogan administration in August lifted its hold on the federally funded project in the Choptank River tributary, which had drawn fierce opposition from many watermen, after a state study showed that oysters were thriving in many of the sanctuaries established in Maryland’s portion of the Bay to protect them from harvest.

Watermen have long fretted that the 6-year-old system of sanctuaries had shut them out of some prime harvest areas. In December, Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton had asked the Army Corps of Engineers to delay reef-building work in the Tred Avon after a delegation of disgruntled watermen appealed to Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford.

They contended that expensive, large-scale oyster restoration projects taking place in some sanctuaries were costly failures, pointing to a project in nearby Harris Creek. And they complained that similar methods and materials were being used in the Tred Avon.

But a recent federal report found that oysters appeared to be doing well on reefs built up in Harris Creek as part of the project. So, with the reluctant assent of an industry-laden advisory commission, the state natural resources secretary asked the Corps to go ahead with building eight acres of new reefs in the Tred Avon. The job should be bid out this fall.

This part of the project, expected to cost about $1 million, had been scheduled last winter; it was the second phase of an overall plan to restore 147 acres of reefs in the river.

Watermen are still pushing back, though, against plans for the remaining restoration work in the Tred Avon, even as they clamor to get access to some of the oysters now off-limits to them.

“Our watermen have been restrained from working much of the Bay,” Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said at a recent meeting of the Department of Natural Resources’ Oyster Advisory Commission. “It’s time for us…to open some of these places up.”

It’s just the latest chapter in a debate that dates back to the administration of former Gov. Martin O’Malley. With the Bay’s oyster population depleted by historic overharvesting, habitat loss and disease, O’Malley moved to protect more of the bivalves for their ecological value, while also encouraging a shift in the oyster industry toward private aquaculture. The change greatly increased the waters set aside as sanctuaries, from about 8 percent of the remaining viable oyster habitat to 24 percent.

Three-quarters of the historic oyster grounds remain open to harvest, but the sanctuary expansion angered watermen who continued to pursue wild oysters. They complained that many of the best reefs for harvesting oysters had been put off- limits, hurting their livelihood.

Role of sanctuaries

The commercial harvest actually more than doubled after the sanctuaries were expanded, surpassing 400,000 bushels in 2014, a level not seen in 25 years. Biologists say the rebound stemmed from decent oyster reproduction in 2010 and 2012 as well as persistent low levels of the diseases that have repeatedly ravaged the Bay’s bivalve population the last three decades.

The harvest has begun to decline again, though, as reproduction has been spotty the past few years. Last year’s landings were still estimated to be worth $17 million dockside. But over that same time, the number of watermen oystering has more than doubled to 1,100, meaning the income from that catch must feed many more mouths. Though the growth of the fishery gets little mention, it’s likely an underlying factor driving demand to consider opening sanctuaries to harvest.

Even so, watermen have long questioned the value of sanctuaries, arguing that they show no better reproduction than areas open to harvest. They contend the restoration effort should focus on areas with marginal oyster populations, rather than take reefs that still have decent numbers of bivalves on them.

Watermen took their complaints about the sanctuaries to the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who pledged during his 2014 election campaign to end what he called O’Malley’s “war on watermen.” They pressed for the delay of the Tred Avon reef project. Under orders from the governor’s office, the DNR secretary went along saying he wanted to wait for the results of his staff’s ongoing review of the state’s overall oyster management, to see if any changes were warranted.

That report came at the end of July. It found that oysters appear to be flourishing in much of the expanded network of sanctuaries that Maryland set up six years ago to protect them from commercial harvest. But the overall “biomass,” or weight and number, of the state’s bivalve population elsewhere is shrinking, a decline the DNR staff attributed to watermen scooping up the larger shellfish in the public waters still open to them.

The 945-page report draws on annual sampling by the DNR to check conditions in each sanctuary and on every oyster reef open to harvest in Maryland’s portion of the Bay. While stressing that five years is too soon to really determine success, the report says the state’s 51 sanctuaries are generally fulfilling expectations laid out when the state’s oyster management was last overhauled under O’Malley, a Democrat.

Watermen remain dubious about the sustainability of sanctuaries. They have also challenged the way that state and federal agencies are trying to rebuild Maryland’s oyster population as part of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.

Under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement signed in 2014, Maryland and Virginia pledged large-scale oyster restoration work in five waterways each. Three tributaries of the Eastern Shore’s Choptank River — Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River and Tred Avon River — are the first targeted by Maryland under the pact. Maryland finished a $26 million restoration in Harris Creek last year, planting more than 2 billion baby oysters produced by a state-owned hatchery over nearly 350 acres of newly constructed and existing reefs. The other two tributary restoration projects are not complete, but if carried out according to a joint federal-state restoration plan, the total investment in all three waterways is projected to be about $44 million.

Monitoring of Harris Creek by one of the restoration effort’s federal partners — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — has found that the hatchery-produced bivalves planted there are surviving and growing, and there is some evidence of new generations of oysters settling on them. In a report released in July, NOAA said that all 12 reefs planted in 2012 had the minimum desired density of oysters, while half had the target density of more than 50 per square meter.

Stone vs. shell

Watermen question whether that’s significant, but in the meantime they have objected to the use of granite rocks to build reefs in Harris Creek and elsewhere. They contend the stone underwater structures have snagged fishing gear and damaged boats, and that other oyster shells are the only suitable material for raising baby bivalves, known as spat.

Conservationists have suggested watermen’s dislike for stone also stems from their desire to get back into the sanctuaries and the inability to harvest oysters from the craggy rock structures using traditional oyster tongs or dredges.

NOAA’s Harris Creek survey, though, found that the highest density of live oysters by far was on a reef built solely of granite stone. The other reefs in the creek had been covered with mixed clam shells from a processing plant in New Jersey, or fossil shell mined from a quarry in Florida, where surveys also found oysters growing and surviving well, if not quite as abundantly.
Unswayed, watermen and their supporters persuaded the DNR’s oyster advisory panel to insist that natural oyster shell be the priority “substrate” for all constructed reefs in future restoration projects, and that the panel would have to be consulted if any more stone is proposed to be used.

Bill Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, urged the panel and DNR not to rule out stone, noting that there’s a serious shortage of oyster shells with which to build reefs and plant new oysters.

“We’re in a situation that’s not optimal,” Goldsborough said at one advisory panel meeting. “We’ve got to do the best we can.”

There is a large reservoir of old oyster shells on Man-o-War Shoal, an ancient reef rising from the Bay bottom near Baltimore, one estimated to hold up to 100 million bushels of shells. The DNR has applied for a federal permit to mine 5 million bushels from the 456-acre reef which, though a sizable quantity, still doesn’t match the estimated needs for restoration projects, replenishing reefs harvested by watermen and raising aquaculture shellfish on leased bottom.

Some watermen and their allies on the advisory panel contend that the key to rebuilding the Bay’s oyster population and its seafood industry is getting access to an abundant supply of oyster shells — from that shoal or another source. And though it would appear, by the shells on it, that Man-o-War once brimmed with oysters, the DNR says there are relatively few living on it now.

“How these projects are going to be built is probably more important than where they’re built,” said Ronald Fithian, town manager of Rock Hall in Kent County and a former longtime waterman.

But the DNR’s bid to dredge Man-o-War shells has been widely opposed by conservationists, recreational fishermen and even some watermen. Opponents say it’s one of the last great fishing spots in the Bay. CBF’s Goldsborough said it’s also the last big reef in that part of the estuary because the others were whittled down by harvesters.

The Army Corps of Engineers must decide whether to grant the DNR’s request to dredge the shells from the shoal.

Future restoration projects

When — or whether — any more oyster restoration work takes place in the Tred Avon after the 8-acre project remains to be seen. At a public meeting in August, watermen sharply questioned plans to build up to 57 acres of additional reefs in shallower water in the river, and to plant millions of hatchery-spawned oysters on the new reefs, as well as on 71 acres of existing reefs. The Corps’ Baltimore District expects to issue a final environmental assessment on the shallow-water project in September.

Meanwhile, watermen and their allies on the DNR’s advisory panel are pushing to speed up consideration of reopening at least some of the sanctuaries that the state set up six years ago. The DNR’s report did say that it saw “justification” for adjusting some of their boundaries, noting that those with poor habitat and relatively low densities of oysters are unlikely to bounce back without substantial investment.

DNR Secretary Belton said he’s open to experimenting on some sanctuaries with a “rotational” harvest, where oysters are left alone for three to four years before being taken.

Goldsborough said he’s in favor of trying a rotational harvest, too, but questioned why no one was considering doing it in areas already open to watermen. Harvesting oysters from a reef every three or four years, he said, will not yield the same ecological benefits as leaving them alone, where they can filter the water and provide habitat for fish and other marine creatures.

The DNR secretary also said the next tributaries chosen for large-scale restoration projects should be in other parts of the Bay, to spread the economic impact on watermen. Belton further urged the panel to consider areas where oysters are already relatively abundant, so their population might be increased with minimal taxpayer expense.

The DNR report identified the St. Mary’s River in southern Maryland and the Manokin River on the lower Eastern Shore as two tributaries that “show potential” for restoration “without significant financial investment” in reef construction and hatchery seeding.

But watermen and their allies on the advisory panel rejected either or both and suggested instead that future restoration work be done along the more heavily developed Western Shore, where there’s little commercial oystering.

“To come up with another on the (Eastern) Shore would not sell,” warned Del. Johnny Mautz, a Republican whose mid-Shore district includes the three Choptank restoration areas.

Advocates for the Severn and South rivers near Annapolis both spoke up in favor of their rivers getting intensive restoration. Neither has yielded abundant harvests in the recent past, so they are unlikely to draw industry opposition. But others pointed out they may not be ideal candidates for restoration, in part because their water is too fresh for good natural reproduction. They also have relatively low levels of disease, so would not likely test the ability of oysters on restored reefs to resist them — one of the restoration effort’s goals.

Brown, the watermen’s association president, said that picking new rivers for oyster restoration was “putting the cart before the horse.” He and others said they wanted to see the DNR reopen some sanctuaries during the upcoming oyster season, which begins Oct. 1 and ends March 31.

Dave Blazer, the DNR fisheries director, had said officials figured it would take the advisory panel several months to work through whether to open sanctuaries to some kind of harvesting, and if so, which ones. And he pointed out that changing sanctuary boundaries would require regulatory action, which normally takes 120 days.

But, Brown insisted, “we need to get something in place.”