EASTON — The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has asked the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to delay oyster restoration work currently taking place in the Tred Avon River.
In a statement last week, Stephen Schatz, executive director of communications for DNR, said a review of oyster restoration efforts will take place and a report on the efforts to date will be released this summer.
“The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has contacted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to request a delay of oyster restoration work in the Tred Avon River pending the completion of the department’s comprehensive review of restoration efforts. The report is expected to be released in July,” Schatz said.
Sarah Gross, a spokesperson for the Army Corps, said the Army Corps is gathering information with the DNR to respond to the governor’s inquiry. She said there is no status change to report as of yet regarding the work in the Tred Avon River. The work is anticipated to begin late January or early February and will include 8 acres of restoration, which is a part of the original 24 acres awarded in 2014.
She said a meeting will take place in January to discuss the request for delay further.
Restoration efforts in the Tred Avon River began last April, when barges full of materials to be used in the construction of oyster bars began to show up on the river.
The work on the Tred Avon River is a continuation of efforts to restore Maryland’s oyster population — a partnership between the Army Corps, the DNR, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Oyster Recovery Partnership.
These organizations form the Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup, which includes additional partners such as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, the University of Maryland and its Center for Environmental Sciences, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The large-scale restoration is part of efforts to restore oysters in Harris Creek, as well as the Little Choptank and Tred Avon rivers. Combined, the three plans call for the restoration of more than 950 acres, according to the restoration work group this last spring.
Bunky Chance, Talbot Watermen Association Inc. president, said information and data is starting to come in from restoration efforts in Harris Creek and the Little Choptank River. He said the data coming from Harris Creek does not indicate restoration efforts have been successful.
“Harris Creek was not productive at all; not nearly as productive as it was supposed to be,” Chance said. “Why start a new project when we’re about to get data from the Harris Creek and Little Choptank projects?”
Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, issued a statement following word that the DNR requested the Army Corps delay oyster restoration work in the Tred Avon River.
“Oysters are making such an encouraging comeback now. They still face considerable challenges. We’re disappointed that Maryland’s natural resources agency has become one of those hurdles. Why would we want to delay the recovery of the oyster population in the Bay?” Prost said.
According to the Army Corps this past spring, restoration work in the Tred Avon included construction of up to 24 acres of about 1-foot oyster bars in water 9 to 20 feet deep.
Chance said the foundation set in the first two phases involved spreading rock and shell around an already existing oyster bar to increase its size. He said the third phase of the Tred Avon project would be spreading shell over the existing oyster bar in the river, as well as inside the 1-foot oyster bar foundation that was set in the first two phases of the project.
Spreading seed over the existing oyster bar would eliminate any other fisheries management plan to be implemented, Chance said. He is happy Gov. Larry Hogan decided to request the Army Corps hold off the third phase until all the data from the Harris Creek and Little Choptank River projects is in.
“We took the same numbers and concepts to (Gov. Martin O’Malley), but we were not afforded a seat at the table,” Chance said. “(Hogan) gave us the opportunity to offer our expertise and our experience. ... He seems less concerned with politics and more concerned with the oyster as a resource.”
Bob Newberry, chairman of the Delmarva Fisheries Association, said he has had concerns over how the restoration efforts and construction of oyster sanctuaries have taken place in Harris Creek. He said that cost Maryland taxpayers around $26 million.
“We ought to have more oysters than you can shake a stick at. We should be seeing billions and billions of healthy oysters. But we’re not. We need to step back and look at how much money is being spent here," Newberry said. “What (O’Malley) did was was take $26 million and sink it into Harris Creek.”
Both Chance and Newberry said Broad Creek, which is part of a commercial fisheries area, has a higher spat — or young oyster — count. Both said oyster bars in Broad Creek are doing better than the sanctuary in Harris Creek.
Chance said that, using the data from Harris Creek, the Talbot Watermen Association and the Delmarva Fisheries Association met with the governor’s office several weeks ago and asked Hogan to stop work on the Tred Avon River.
“We put (the data) into a comprehensive plan and took it to the governor’s office and appealed to them. This project should not move forward as planned, because it has not been successful,” Chance said. “And at a cost of $26 million to the taxpayer.”
Newberry said concerns also include large rock piles that were put into Harris Creek improperly and have done more than $30,000 in damage to watermen’s boats.
In addition, Newberry said Dermo, a parasite that has invaded Chesapeake Bay oysters with devastating results, has risen to dangerous levels in Harris Creek.
Harris Creek became an oyster sanctuary in 2009, following fO’Malley’s announcement of his administration’s proposed oyster restoration plan, which called for an emphasis on expanded oyster sanctuaries, Newberry said. Oyster sanctuaries, by law, cannot be harvested again by commercial fishermen once they are deemed federal sanctuaries, he said.
According to the DNR website, one goal of the sanctuary project is to increase the oyster sanctuary network from 9 percent to 25 percent. Other objectives include helping develop oysters with natural disease resistance, which is what the DNR considers the long-term strategy for restoring oysters; protecting about half of the Bay’s most productive oyster grounds; and “serving as reservoirs of reproductive capacity, generating larvae to populate other areas, including public shellfish fishery area.”
Newberry said sanctuaries are where oysters go to die.
“Reproductive levels are very, very low (in the Harris Creek sanctuary). Way below the public fisheries areas,” Chance said. “Sanctuaries have become a breeding ground for disease. Some public fisheries areas are adjacent to these sanctuaries.”
Chance said Dermo, like the flu, is highly contagious and can spread to other areas and to other oysters easily. He said, in public fisheries areas, watermen are harvesting oysters while they are younger, and therefore harvesting them before their immune systems become compromised.
Newberry said neither the Delmarva Fisheries Association nor the Talbot Watermen Association wants to see oyster restoration efforts stopped, but instead modified to be successful. Newberry and Chance said they look forward to being a part of successful restoration efforts.
“We don’t want them to stop (the restoration). Oyster restoration is the priority for the commercial oyster industry in the state of Maryland,” Newberry said. “How (the restoration) is implemented is what we have the issue with.”
Staff Writer Josh Bollinger contributed to this report.