Warned that oyster restoration delays in the Tred Avon River could threaten federal support for future projects, a key Maryland advisory panel has urged the Department of Natural Resources to drop its opposition to using granite rocks to build shellfish habitat in the Eastern Shore tributary.

With clam shells in short supply, Maryland oyster advisory commission recommends resuming use of granite stone to build reefs in the Tred Avon River. (Dave Harp)

But Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton has yet to decide whether to follow the advice of his oyster advisory commission. Even if he does, the funding to finish the Tred Avon project is up in the air.

At its meeting last month, the DNR’s 24-member advisory panel on oyster management voted 14 to 7 in favor of letting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers use rocks, rather than clam shells, for oyster reef construction planned in the Tred Avon. Two members were absent, and one was undecided.  

The Army Corps Baltimore District is midway through a federally funded project begun in 2015 to restore oysters to the Choptank River tributary. It is one of three Maryland tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay that have been targeted to date for multimillion-dollar efforts to bring back the estuary’s once-bountiful bivalves, which are thought to be at just 1 or 2 percent of their historic abundance.

The Corps has built 36 acres of reefs in the river so far, and had planned to construct 45 additional acres, which would then be seeded with millions of hatchery-spawned baby oysters. But Col. Edward Chamberlayne, commander of the Corps’ Baltimore District, told commission members that an inability to get enough clam shells from New Jersey seafood processors has caused delays and cost overruns, which may force the agency to abandon the project.

Completing the project has already been problematic. Complaints from watermen about the use of granite rocks in the oyster restoration projects, which they say can damage boats in shallow water and interfere with crabbing, led to a nearly yearlong delay in the Tred Avon work in 2016. The DNR asked the Corps to hold up further work until it could complete a review of the state’s overall oyster management, including the restoration sites. Those delays led the Corps’ Baltimore District to transfer $1 million in funds it had for the project to its Norfolk District, where it was spent building reefs in the Lower Bay.

Finally, in August 2016, with the grudging recommendation of the advisory panel, the DNR gave the Corps the go-ahead to continue reef construction — though without the use of any more granite. Corps officials have since had to rely exclusively on clam shells, but the contractor couldn’t get enough to keep on schedule.

Chamberlayne told the DNR advisory panel at its Nov. 20 meeting that the repeated delays had added $133,000 to the project’s original estimated cost of $11.4 million. If forced to continue using only clam shells, he said, it could take another four to five years to finish the job. And at that rate, he warned, Congress and the Corps leadership may be unwilling to provide further funding for oyster restoration in the Bay.

“Right now, the whole program is at risk, based on what we’ve been doing,” Chamberlayne said.

Most watermen and their supporters on the advisory panel remained adamantly opposed to building reefs with granite rocks.

“I don’t want to see us having problems with boats, … problems with trotliners,” said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association

Brown and other fishing industry advocates contend that oyster shells make the best habitat on which to propagate other oysters, and insisted there would be plenty of shells available if the Army Corps would approve the DNR’s application to dredge Man-o-War Shoals, an ancient reef in the Upper Bay now largely devoid of oysters. But dredging has been opposed by anglers and conservationists who say it’s prime habitat for fish and other Bay creatures and shouldn’t be disturbed. The Army Corps has indicated it is nearing a decision on the issue.

Environmentalists, scientists and others on the DNR oyster advisory panel note there’s ample evidence that stone attracts oyster larvae and supports oyster reproduction — the granite rocks placed in the nearby Harris Creek restoration project have new oysters growing on them in abundance, according to surveys.

A clump of oysters pulled up from a restored reef in Maryland's Harris Creek. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)Stone advocates further contend that, even if approved, the Man-o-War shoals could not supply all the competing needs for reef material. Just finishing the Tred Avon project could use up a million or more bushels of oyster shells, by one estimate, and the state has yet to begin restoration work in two yet to be named tributaries where it has committed to restore reefs as part of its Bay restoration commitments.

Using granite on restoration projects, proponents argue, would save the oyster shells for other needed uses, such as replenishing public oyster reefs worked by watermen and supporting oyster-farming aquaculture enterprises.

“Because these are areas we are not harvesting, I’m okay with stone,” said Del. Deborah C. Rey, a St. Mary’s County Republican who’s on the advisory panel.

DNR Secretary Belton was noncommittal after the advisory panel’s vote in favor of using stone to finish the Tred Avon project. He said by email two days after the meeting that the panel’s straw vote and comments by members would help him come to a decision and that he planned to confer with his staff and the Corps “in the coming days” and give Army officials a decision “before their deadline.” Corps officials have indicated they need to know in the next several weeks, depending on what Congress does about the fiscal 2018 federal budget.

“As I see it,” Belton added, “every oyster decision is connected.” He said that “all sides agree that we need more oyster shell,” which is what the DNR is seeking in its bid to dredge Man-o-War Shoals. Other interrelated factors include the selection of additional tributaries for oyster restoration and whether to use alternative substrate like stone.

“The puzzle is falling in to place,” he concluded.

Not quite. After the advisory panel meeting, Chamberlayne said that his staff estimates it could cost about $4 million to finish the Tred Avon project. That’s money his District doesn’t presently have, he said, and his chances of getting the needed funds hinge on being able to present a cost-effective plan for completing the project in the shortest possible time frame, given the delays and overruns so far. Using stone only, he predicted, the reef construction could be wrapped up in a year.

The prospects, though, are clouded by uncertainty over budget fights in Washington, DC. There’s no money specifically included for the project in 2018 spending bills now pending on Capitol Hill, but Army Corps leaders could opt to allocate some of their other funds to the oyster restoration effort. To be included in the Corps’ “work plan,” the District would have to present its case for the project within a month or so of the budget’s adoption.

“The plan is to proceed as if funding is in hand to get plans in place and a contract ready for solicitation,” said Sarah Gross, spokeswoman for the Baltimore District, “so if funding does get allocated, we could get the ball rolling right away.”

But if Congress can’t agree on a budget — something not unusual in recent years — and instead adopts a stopgap continuing resolution to keep funding the federal government, that would not allow the Corps to allocate any money to any project not already authorized.

If that happens, the loss in 2016 of $1 million for the Tred Avon may mean it could be a year or more, if ever, before there’s any more federal funding for the restoration of oysters in the Bay.