The Hogan administration is pressing ahead with its bid to dredge old oyster shells from the largest remaining deposit in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay — a move backed by watermen but widely opposed by conservationists and recreational anglers.These shells are essentially recent fossils, a remnant from when the Bay was saltier and oysters more successful.
The state Department of the Environment has declared its support for the plan to mine 5 million bushels of shells from Man-O-War Shoals, near the mouth of the Patapsco River. The MDE issued a public notice Nov. 1 recommending that the state Board of Public Works grant the Department of Natural Resources a tidal wetlands license, which is needed to do the dredging.
The plan still needs federal approval, but if given the green light, DNR officials say the old shells would be used to replenish reefs in waters open to commercial harvest, help private oyster growers and restore reefs in sanctuary areas.
Man-O-War Shoals is an ancient reef rising from the Bay bottom near Baltimore, estimated to harbor up to 100 million bushels of shells in its 456-acre footprint. Though productive long ago, it has very few live oysters now, despite repeated efforts to reseed it.
Oyster shells are generally thought to be the best substrate, or hard surface, for attracting baby oyster spat and enabling them to grow. Watermen and DNR officials say the cache in Man-O-War is needed to help rebuild the Bay’s lost oyster habitat and sustain the traditional wild harvest.Not being an Upper Bay fisherman most of the time, I haven't fish Man-O-War Shoals much, but I do remember that earlier this, in one of our commercial hook and lining trips with Walleye Pete, we did fish on them, and caught some fish.
But anglers say Man-O-War is one of the best fishing spots in the Upper Chesapeake for white perch and striped bass, and contend that dredging could ruin it. Conservationists also object to disrupting the rich underwater habitat, and point out that there are other materials that could be used to rebuild the Bay’s oyster habitat, which DNR estimates has declined by nearly 70 percent in the past 40 years alone.
Since the wild harvest plummeted decades ago, oyster shell has become expensive and difficult to obtain. With Maryland, Virginia and the federal government committed to large-scale restoration efforts, officials have been forced to try alternative sources, such as Florida fossil shell and, more recently, clam shells from New Jersey. Both have been used in large-scale restoration projects on the Eastern Shore, including Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River and Tred Avon River.Watermen generally reject any substrate other than oyster shells, because they are easier to dredge and tong, and resent any attempt at oyster restoration that is not intended to immediately (or as close to immediately as possible) make oysters available for harvest.
The restoration work is finished in Harris Creek but continuing in the Little Choptank and Tred Avon. Scientists say the alternatives have proven suitable, with granite reefs in Harris Creek garnering much higher spat counts than nearby reefs covered with clam shells. The cost of acquiring granite stone is roughly on par with estimates the DNR has made for dredging up the old oyster shells.
Watermen have objected, though, to the use of materials other than shells in the restoration projects, complaining they disrupt crabbing, among other things. They have won the Hogan administration’s support in blocking further use of alternate substrate in reef construction in the Tred Avon and Little Choptank.
Of course, my own preferred oyster restoration plan would be to ban harvest on wild oysters for 5, or better yet 10 years to see if the oysters can rebound on their own. If so, great, and keep the harvest at truly sustainable levels to allow the population to expand.
But to see how long this fight over Man-O-War Shoals has been going on, check out this 2011 article from the Baltimore Sun.