Thursday, August 11, 2016

Oyster War of Words Continues

The oyster restoration war of words continues. After grudgingly agreeing last week to finish some federally funded reef construction in the Tred Avon River, Maryland watermen gave a hostile reception Tuesday night to plans to create even more bivalve habitat there that would be off-limits to commercial harvest.

At a public meeting in Easton, federal and state officials were peppered with skeptical questions about a proposal to build up to 57 acres of new reefs in the Tred Avon and plant millions of hatchery-spawned oysters on them, as well as on 71 acres of existing reefs in the Choptank River tributary.

The queries were submitted anonymously in writing, but it was clear they came from grumbling watermen in the audience. Their leaders stood at the end of the two-hour session to denounce the oyster restoration effort in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay. They claimed it has been a costly failure, despite two recent reports that oysters planted on restored reefs over the past few years appear to be doing well.

“Preliminary reports show it’s not successful,” insisted Bunky Chance, president of the Talbot Waterman Association. “You have not reached your goals.”

The meeting indicated the long-running debate in Maryland over how to revive the Bay’s depleted oyster population is far from over. Maryland watermen are pressing to reopen at least some of the sanctuaries the state created six years ago, including the Tred Avon. And they chafe at the massive public investment in restoration, seeking more of it for their industry.

In 2010, the state put 24 percent of its Bay bottom off limits to harvest, hoping that by leaving the remaining oysters alone they would live longer, spawn and develop natural resistance to diseases that have periodically devastated the reefs. Maryland further pledged, along with Virginia, to conduct large-scale restoration efforts in five Bay tributaries in each state. The Tred Avon is one of three Maryland has targeted so far for such work.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is underwriting and handling the Tred Avon project, has already constructed 16 acres of reefs in the river. Last week, after much debate, Maryland’s Oyster Advisory Commission, with seafood interests heavily represented, reluctantly endorsed building another 8 acres. The Corps is looking to complete the overall plan for restoring oysters on a total of 146 acres in the Tred Avon by creating more reefs in shallower water — less than 9 feet deep. With $1.4 million spent already, the overall project is estimated to cost $11.4 million.

Watermen challenged the plan, saying the sanctuaries have cost their industry and don’t appear to be bringing oysters back. They contend that a similar restoration project in Harris Creek, another Choptank tributary, has failed to yield higher oyster reproduction than occurs naturally in nearby Broad Creek, where bivalves are regularly harvested by watermen. About 350 acres of reefs were built in Harris Creek, and seeded with 2 billion hatchery oysters there. The $26 million cost was paid for by state and federal funds.

Angie Sowers, a Corps biologist overseeing the Tred Avon project, pointed out that a recent report on oysters planted in Harris Creek three years ago found they were thriving. All the reefs checked had at least the minimum hoped-for density of bivalves, she said, and half had 50 or more per square meter, the goal scientists had set for the effort. Though it will likely take another five years to say for sure if the restoration has been a success, she said, all early indications are good.
Watermen won't be satisfied until every inch of bottom is available to them, and every oyster is gone. I have my own oyster restoration plan, but I doubt the watermen will like it very much. Ban all fishing on wild oysters for a minimum of 5, and preferably 10 years, and see if the native oyster still has the capacity to grow it's population and expand it's range in the Bay as it currently functions.

Does anyone else think it's odd that the Army is determining whether or not oysters are planted in the shallow waters of the bay?

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