Maryland’s ambitious effort to restore its depleted oyster population has hit a snag, as watermen critical of the effort succeeded in at halting construction of new oyster reefs this winter in an Eastern Shore river.

Acting after three watermen met with Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, the state’s natural resources secretary asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hold up a federally funded reef building project about to begin in the Tred Avon River near St. Michaels.

DNR secretary Mark J. Belton declined to explain his request for the delay when asked about it by Bay Journal reporters.  He referred all questions to his communications director, Stephen E. Schatz, who said the administration wants to wait until an internal review of the state’s overall oyster management policies is completed. That review is due in July.

“We’re still committed to Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration,” Schatz said. “It’s a good time to take a pause, take a breather, and reboot in July.”

Matthew A. Clark, the governor's communications director, said Wednesday that the State House had not overridden DNR in granting the watermen's request for delay.

"Gov. Hogan, Lt. Gov.Rutherford and Secretary Belton are in full agreement that a brief pause of the Tred Avon project is a common sense measure as the department completes a critical review of overall oyster restoration efforts in the Bay," Clark said.

Sixteen acres of reefs were built last year in the Tred Avon, and the Corps was preparing to award a contract to build another eight acres there, according to Sarah Gross, spokeswoman for the Corps’ Baltimore District.  The Corps has agreed to postpone this step, at least until state and federal officials meet and review their positions later this month.

The Tred Avon is one of three Maryland waterways targeted so far for large-scale oyster restoration under a joint state-federal plan. It is an ambitious plan to restore a species that’s population has plummeted to less than one percent of historic levels due to diseases, over-harvesting and an excess of sediment in the Chesapeake. Maryland and Virginia both pledged to work to rebuild reefs and protect oysters in 10 bay tributaries by 2025 as part of a multi-state Chesapeake Bay watershed agreement signed with the federal government two years ago. The Tred Avon’s restoration reefs are expected to cost $11.5 million. 

Environmentalists have criticized the delay. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation suggested the Hogan administration is backsliding on the state’s commitment to restore oysters. Federal officials and Maryland’s two U.S. senators say they fear the delay could drag out and possibly derail the overall restoration effort. In a letter Tuesday to Baltimore Corps commander Col. Edward P. Chamberlayne, Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski warned the delay could undermine the restoration effort’s benefits and may jeopardize federal funding to carry it out.

“We urge you to work with the state to see this specific project and other works to restore bay oyster populations move forward as quickly as possible,” they wrote.

Maryland’s watermen have never been enthusiastic about the restoration projects in the Talbot-Dorchester corridor of the Chesapeake, which has historically yielded much of the state’s harvest. They excoriated former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s decision to increase sanctuaries from 9 percent to 25 percent of the state’s oyster grounds in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake. The restoration reefs, which are off limits to harvesting, signal a shift that taxpayer money would go towards boosting oysters for ecological benefits rather than for harvest.

Besides their value as seafood, oysters help clean up the Bay by filtering nutrients, sediment and other contaminants from the water. They also provide habitat and food for fish, crabs, birds and a variety of other marine life.

This isn’t the first time watermen have protested the restoration work. In May 2014, watermen attempted to block state contractors from building reefs in the Little Choptank River out of fossilized shell from Florida, complaining that the excavated material was loaded with silt and other possible contaminants.  The state spent $6.3 million to bring it in because conventional oyster shell is in short supply and expensive. Officials at the time said the Florida material was safe to use, but the Hogan administration has not continued the practice.

Having gained no traction with O’Malley, the watermen hoped Gov. Larry Hogan,  the new Republican governor would be more sympathetic. During his campaign, Gov. Hogan had pledged to end the “War on Watermen,” and last summer the Department of Natural Resources agreed to make some changes - after extensive meetings with oyster harvesters - to the way it spread the fossilized shell.

In the fall, a small group of watermen went to the Department of Natural Resources with a comparison of oyster reproduction in Harris Creek, the site of the state’s largest sanctuary reef, and neighboring Broad Creek that suggested to them that the Harris Creek restoration was not working. Broad Creek, which has  been open to harvest, had much higher numbers of “spat,” or baby oysters, setting on the reefs. Managers and scientists with the department declined to stop the project, which had included a long public process to plan and millions of dollars in federal funds.

The watermen then went to Rutherford, who agreed to get the department to request the stoppage.

Two of the watermen who met with Rutherford said they believed the ongoing restoration work in the sanctuaries, which are off-limits to commercial harvest, is a wasteful failure and needs to be overhauled. Rob Newberry, head of the Delmarva Fisheries Association, and Bunky Chance, president of Talbot County watermen’s association, base that assertion in part on their comparison of the Harris and Broad creek spat set.

In Harris Creek, which was once open to harvest, the state and federal partners have built 350 acres of new reefs. Over the past three years, those reefs have been seeded with 2 billion juvenile oysters.  That project cost $26 million in state and federal funds, and is the largest restoration project in the world.

Newberry and Chance noted that the state’s annual survey of oyster reproduction, performed by state biologists, shows that an unrestored reef in nearby Broad Creek has more spat set than the rebuilt reefs in Harris Creek. 

Watermen contend that regularly dredging reefs during the harvesting of larger oysters aids the remaining bivalves’ survival by knocking off any buildup of silt that could smother them.  They say that Broad Creek has yielded millions in income for watermen while costing the government nothing to maintain. But DNR’s analysis have shown that this practice, known as power-dredging, does far less to restore oysters than planting new beds with hatchery seed.

The watermen also contend that the Harris Creek sanctuary is a hotbed of Dermo, a parasitic disease that can kill oysters before they can grow to legally harvestable size. Dermo and another disease, MSX, devastated the bay’s oyster population in the 1960s and again in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“We believe there is a better way to do this,” said Chance, who is also a member of the Maryland Oystermen Association. “We don’t think this is in the best interests of the resource.”

Peyton Robertson, director of the Chesapeake Bay office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said ecological assessments are just now being conducted on the first batch of oysters planted three years ago on 100 acres of reefs built in Harris Creek.

Though all the data are not in, Robertson said he’s seen no evidence so far to support the watermen’s claims that the restoration is a failure or that it’s a breeding ground for disease.  DNR surveys have found that while Dermo is present in Harris Creek oysters, it’s widespread throughout the Bay. But its intensity Baywide has been low, and likewise mortality.

Spat set is not the sole yardstick for determining the success of the restoration, but rather a “metric” of ecological functions, Robertson said.  When looking at whether an oyster restoration site is successful, scientists look at the density of a reef, the year classes of oysters, the biodiversity the reef attracts and the oysters’ survival rate.

Underwater video Robertson’s seen of one of the restored reefs shows oysters growing vertically off the reef, rather than laying flat, with other marine organisms growing on and around them and with fish swimming in the vicinity.

“That’s really the broader set of habitat conditions we’re looking for,” he said.

Angie Sowers, an Army Corps water resources specialist involved in planning the oyster restoration work, said most of the oysters planted on Harris Creek are still too young to spawn, so it’s premature to judge their reproduction.

Monitoring work began this fall on the first of the hatchery oysters put in Harris Creek three years ago, she said. The review is not complete, she said, but there are “clear signs of improvement” in the creek’s oyster community since the restoration work began.

“Where there were very few oysters, there are now densities of 25 or greater (per square meter),” she said.

Environmentalists said they were shocked by the Hogan administration’s decision to seek a halt to the Tred Avon work. They contended the move upsets a tradition of open, deliberative planning of oyster restoration projects in which all interested parties have a voice.

Bill Goldsborough, who as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s senior fisheries scientist has been involved in the state’s oyster restoration efforts for more than two decades, said he learned of the delay from an article in the Star-Democrat newspaper.

“I respect these guys’ on-water observations, but it’s not the same as science,” Goldsborough said of watermen.  “This was a decision made based on requests from one stakeholder group without any input from scientists and other stakeholders.”

Goldsborough said that spat set information comparing Harris Creek and Broad Creek - a sanctuary area versus a harvest area - tells scientists little about the benefits of sanctuaries. Though Harris Creek and Broad Creek are near each other, their circulation patterns differ, Goldsborough said, and that’s a crucial difference because the way plankton move in the water dictates how much oysters can eat and how fast they will grow.

“There are scientific metrics to determine whether oyster restoration is successful,” he said. “Comparing Harris Creek to Broad Creek is not one of the metrics.”

Lisa Kellogg, a senior research scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, requested the document that Chance and Newbury were using to make their claims and compared that data to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ 2014 fall oyster survey. Kellogg said the watermen made a math error and added spat per shell from two bushels instead of averaging them. They also omitted certain data points.

It’s not clear whether anyone in the governor’s office had seen Kellogg’s analysis, but she shared it Tuesday with several scientists at DNR as well as those at the Corps, NOAA, and her own institution, according to an email the Bay Journal obtained.

While reef construction is on hold for now, the Corps plans to finish seeding the reefs it built last year, said Sowers. Work should begin in spring or summer to plant 54 million oyster “spat” produced at the University of Maryland’s hatchery near Cambridge. 

The Corps also is continuing its environmental assessment of the next phase of the Tred Avon project – building nearly 60 acres of additional reefs in shallower water, 6.5 feet to nine feet deep.  She said officials hope to be able to put that work out to bid later in the year, with construction to start around December.

If the Corps has to hold up that work, Sowers said, federal funding “potentially” could be affected.

Robertson called the upcoming meeting between state and federal officials a “gut check” on the future course of oyster restoration work in Maryland. NOAA provides funding to the state for the effort, he pointed out, much of which goes to support the University of Maryland oyster hatchery.

“If the resources are not needed here, or the state isn’t interested in applying them here, should we consider applying them elsewhere?” Robertson asked.  “We want to make sure everyone is on same page with respect to wanting to proceed. I hope so.”

Maryland and Virginia already have an uphill climb to meet their commitment to restore oysters in 10 bay tributaries by 2025. While work has begun on two other tributaries in Maryland and three in Virginia, Harris Creek is the only one completed.

“We’ve got nine years left,” he said, “and we’ve still got nine tributaries to do.”

(This post earlier had carried incorrect figures for the cost of Harris Creek and for the numbers of oysters planned to be seeded this year. We regret the error.)
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