EASTON — For about 60 years, Maryland watermen have been performing their own version of oyster restoration on public fishery grounds, said Talbot County Watermen’s Association President Bunky Chance.

That effort is still underway. A quarter of a million bushels of shell from shucking houses and 50,000 bushels of oyster seed from private hatcheries are currently being planted on Talbot, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s, Somerset, Anne Arundel and Calvert counties public fishery bottom.

Chance said their restoration method costs the state’s taxpayers nothing, because it’s funded through taxes, fees and surcharges watermen pay, split with a contract through the Maryland Department of Transportation. Chance said the watermen’s oyster replenishment efforts ends up benefitting the state’s economy, as it adds oysters into the public fishery.

“That’s 60 years of habitat restoration at $1 million and a half to $2 million a year, and if you look at the number of oysters that’s on public fishery bottom compared to those sanctuaries, it’s the same amount of oysters,” Chance said.

Many watermen are critical of the state and federal oyster restoration plan to create oyster sanctuaries that are closed to harvest.

Chance is one of the critics, and was one of the men leading an effort in December to delay oyster restoration work in the Tred Avon River until a Department of Natural Resources study on oyster sanctuaries is released this summer.

The DNR study will include information about sanctuaries other than Harris Creek, aquaculture and the public fishery.

Oyster restoration is being targeted in three parts of the Choptank River complex — Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River and the Tred Avon River. Work started first in Harris Creek in 2011 and the bushels of oyster seed on shell were planted last year. More than 2 billion oyster seed was planted in Harris Creek and the whole project cost about $27.5 million.

Monitoring is planned through 2021 in Harris Creek to make sure it’s meeting target goals.

One of the target goals that was promoted recently by state and federal partners involved in the restoration effort in Harris Creek — the Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroups — is the density of oysters there.

But Chance said oyster density doesn’t mean much if they aren’t reproducing.

In the state and federal restoration effort, the bottom is monitored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for hardness. Places in the designated sanctuary that need a harder surface get a man-made reef and then seed on shell, grown by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory. Surfaces that are hard enough are planted with seed on shell.

Experience has taught the watermen where to plant their shell and seed, Chance said. They’re actively involved with the water and bottom every day, and Chance said they know where to put the shells to maximize oyster reproduction.

“Our plan doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything, but the bottom line on our plan is that our plan is reproducing at a much greater pace than what the state’s pace is,” he said.

Chance argues that public fisheries are reproducing better than sanctuaries. In part, the DNR study, due for release in July, will address those claims.

The idea behind the state and federal effort is to allow the oyster population within the sanctuaries to increase without harvest pressure, and the larvae are expected to settle in both the sanctuary and harvestable public shellfish fishery grounds nearby.

The ultimate goal of the state and federal plan is to replenish the oyster population of Choptank River complex by targeting specific areas like the sanctuaries in Harris Creek, the Tred Avon and Little Choptank rivers.

Many of the oysters in Harris Creek put there by the state and federal partners as part of the restoration effort are at reproduction age, Chance said. He said that, “because it’s a sanctuary, because it’s not being worked” in the manner public fishery grounds are worked, the oysters there are silting over and oyster spat isn’t catching to shell. The oysters there can also suffocate under the sediment, he said. 

This is a common argument among watermen and regulators. Watermen claim that by working the bottom, and only harvesting mature oysters, letting the brood stock there to grow, it’s cleaning off the shell, which allows spat to catch easier.

“There have been sanctuaries efforts for 25 to 30 years in different areas of the (Chesapeake) Bay and not once worked to a degree that they’ve been reproductive,” Chance said. “They’ve built up sediment and they die and that’s exactly where Harris Creek is heading.”

The Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup recently released a 2015 restoration update. Partners were positive about the results, and in Harris Creek, oyster density hit its minimum mark of at least 15 oysters per square meter, and half of the reefs monitored hit a higher standard of 50 oysters per square meter.

And so it should, Chance said, because they paid to put them there.

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