ANNAPOLIS — The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has announced that it planted 14 million baby oysters in the Chesapeake Bay in 2020, with more than 10 million going into the Tred Avon river. Watermen say they planted more than 200 million last year in waterways statewide.
The planted oysters are larvae, which are grown in hatcheries, spread on shell and then placed in oyster reefs to spawn. CBF grows its larvae in Shady Side and works with the University of Maryland Horn Point Laboratory to produce them.
The 10 million placed in the Tred Avon is part of a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization to restore oyster reefs in at least 10 tributaries on the Chesapeake Bay and plant at least 10 billion spat by 2025.
The count this year is actually lower than the 25 million oysters CBF typically plants into the Bay because the pandemic led to staff and volunteer shortages.
“As soon as we became aware of the pandemic in early March of last year, we took immediate action to change our oyster restoration operations to ensure the safety of staff and volunteers,” said Doug Myers, CBF’s senior Maryland scientist, in a press release. “What we didn’t do is halt the program. Instead, we worked within safety guidelines and continued planting millions of water-filtering oysters in the Bay.”
CBF also planted 1,200 bushels of oyster shells in the Bay. Living oysters produce larvae that attach to empty oyster shells, spawning more of them.
Most planted oysters take up to 3 years to fully mature. Mortality rates can range from 5% to 7% for oysters in a bar. Mortality rates are usually higher for spat, meaning a good chunk of the 14 million planted oyster spat won’t survive.
The environmental organization plants in sanctuaries, which are protected from the public fishery, and is concentrating its efforts in Maryland in five tributaries: Tred Avon, Harris Creek, St. Mary’s River, Little Choptank and Manokin River.
So far, NOAA says 4.6 billion seed have been planted in those regions, and CBF and the federal agency have spent about $57 million on the project.
Rob Newberry, the chairman of Delmarva Fisheries, said watermen have spent less money — out of their own pockets and not taxpayer dollars — and planted more oysters than CBF.
Newberry said watermen planted about 258 million oyster larvae and roughly 200,000 bushels of shell — and only spent $881,000 to do it. They pay for the larvae and shell with a special tax from oyster bushel sales.
“We’re hard-working blue-collar people out there working everyday, and we still manage to plant that much seed oysters and that much shell,” he said. “How much money (CBF) spent planting this is probably tenfold what we spent.”
Newberry said Talbot County planted the most statewide, with 31 million spat and 39,000 shell, and Wicomico was second with 25.4 million spat and 23,000 shell. Dorchester, Queen Anne’s and Kent County all contributed more than 9 million spat.
Newberry said the oyster population is growing fast, even though CBF says the population is still far below a peak of 1 million bushels harvested in the late 1800s.
“It’s unbelievable the amount of oysters that are out there,” he said. “If we have another good growing year, it will be Katie bar the door.”
Watermen and environmental organizations have been battling over management of the oyster population since the early 2000s, when the Department of Natural Resources reported an all-time low of 26,000 bushels harvested. Disease and overfishing played a role in the oyster decline.
Since then, sanctuaries were created and regulations imposed on watermen.
A renewed Oyster Advisory Commission was set up last year so both sides could come to agreement, but the pandemic has forced the meetings into virtual space, and watermen continue to complain about technical difficulties and very little progress being made, according to Newberry.
Nearly all the watermen in the Bay area counties signed a resolution last year asking for a postponement of the OAC meetings, but the Department of Natural Resources, which moderates the commission, denied it, saying the group needs to find a consensus by the end of 2021.
DNR reported in its 2020 assessment report that the overall oyster population in the Maryland waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries is still far lower than it was in 1999. At the end of the ‘90s, DNR reported just under 3 billion estimated oysters, including spat, fledgling and adult oysters.
For the 2019-2020 season, the state agency reported 1.2 billion overall oysters. The numbers include both sanctuaries and public fishery areas.