Monday, February 28, 2022

The Oyster Shell Game

Three, count 'em, three articles about oyster shell in the Bay new today. The first two take opposite sides on the ever controversial proposal to dredge massive amounts of oyster shell from Man-o-War Shoals (and other sites in the upper Bay to obtain shell for oyster restoration projects. First in the Frederick News Post from Robert Newberry of Chestertown, Say yes to oyster shell dredging and recycling in the Chesapeake Bay

It has been more than 25 years of delays for final approval of a cost effective and environmentally sound initiative to help restore the bay’s natural oyster population. This dredging will not only enhance an ongoing rebound of the bay’s oyster population. It will also increase the capacity of the oyster population to naturally and effectively reduce the impact of pollution by filtering the waters of the bay.

The reasons for this delay on final approval of this initiative are simple and frustrating. It is the result of tyranny of the loud by some environmental organizations. They ignore the reality that professionals at government regulatory agencies (including the U.S. EPA and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources), as well as independent third-party research organizations, have reported there will not be adverse impacts from oyster shell dredging in the Man-O-War Shoal.

Despite these fact-based reports, some environmental groups oppose this initiative. Why have they consistently ignored these facts? Could it be that they rely on gloom-and-doom reports on the health of the bay to solicit contributions for a large staff, paid lobbyists, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, extensive real estate holdings and monies in offshore bank accounts? Do they really have the best interests of the Bay as their true mission? We don’t know.

Second, taking the other side, at the Balmer Sun, Chris Dollar on the outdoors: Legislation to dredge Chesapeake Bay reefs a bad idea

Three years ago exactly to the day, I wrote that Maryland’s plan to excavate buried oyster shells from Man O War shoal, the largest remaining relic oyster reef in the upper Chesapeake, was short-sighted and ill-conceived. (Actually, I first wrote about efforts to allow dredging on Man O War at least twelve years ago).

Also in that 2019 column, I opined that there were things Governor Larry Hogan’s natural resource agency had done to earn my support, but strip-mining Man O War shoal wasn’t one of them. Not even close.

Fast-forward to the 2022 General Assembly session where a group of legislators have introduced a bill (H593) that, as currently written, would allow the state to strip-mine potentially many millions of bushels of oyster shell from dozens of other reefs in the Chesapeake Bay. These include popular fishing spots such as Belvedere Shoal, Tea Kettle, Seven Foot knoll, Gales Lumps, and Nine Foot Knoll.

Some supporters of the bill — and of this habitat-wrecking practice writ large — argue it would help accelerate efforts to reboot the state’s wild oyster fishery. To say I’m dubious is an insult to dubious. You cannot convince me that cutting massive swaths into established bay reefs, the number of which are so few as it is already, is not counter-intuitive to restoration best practices.

Moreover, strafing these oyster bars would likely accelerate the erosion of that bar’s natural relief, what I call its three-dimensionality. This key feature is what makes oyster reefs a magnet for crabs, rockfish, white perch, catfish, and spot — all of which attracts anglers.

Carving up places like Man O War Shoal or Belvedere Shoal could also negatively impact the commercial crab fleet, which routinely set pots near or on these prime areas. Disrupting critical fish and crab habitat could lead to fewer crabs caught, and those effects could be felt down the line by scores of seafood dealers and restaurants that cater to crab-loving (and -paying) customers. Is that worth the risk, given the challenges Maryland’s crab fishery already faces?

I'm inclined to oppose. The evidence that restoration efforts work on any reasonable economic scale is lacking. That might be because as soon as restored areas have enough oysters to make it work, waterman either come in and steal them at night, or DNR and the legislature permit them to be harvested. It's hard for a population increase in such a case. My solution, expressed many time here, would be a 5-10 moratorium on wild oyster harvest (permit and encourage aquaculture), and find out once and for all if oysters are really capable of thriving in the modern Chesapeake Bay.

And finally, if you do go with dredging shell, the good news is that there's more to take!  Tim Wheeler at the Bay Journal reports a Trove of oyster shells discovered in Potomac River. 

The “great shellfish bay,” as the Chesapeake was known in earlier times, now suffers a severe shortage of both oysters and their shells. Historically, Bay oysters grew on great reefs made of older shell, and those shells are now in demand both for aqua-culture and oyster restoration projects.

Nautical charts of the Potomac show about 30 “lumps” or knolls in a 10-mile stretch above the U.S. 301 bridge. That prompted speculation, as underwater hills in the Upper Bay mark one-time oyster reefs now smothered under thick layers of silt and sand.

Last summer, fisheries scientists sampled nearly half of the submerged knolls in the upper Potomac. They hit the jackpot, sort of. Every haul of the dredge came up full of shells — but no live oysters.

On that murky February morning, Springer, a waterman who oysters down-river, likewise struck paydirt when he dropped hand tongs over the side of his skiff where the GPS showed a lump.

“Hear that?” he said, as the tongs’ steel jaws produced clinking sounds from beneath the water. “There’s plenty of shell here.”

After repeated tries under tricky conditions, Springer finally pulled some aboard, festooned with bits of brown grass and encrusted with dead barnacles.

Chris Judy, shellfish division director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, estimates that the 13 lumps he helped sample last summer contain 750,000 bushels of shell. If other lumps are similar, he said the total could be 1 million bushels.

The discovery of such an extensive shell deposit raises questions about how the river has changed over time. The water where the shells are located is practically fresh, with salinity levels that periodically dip too low for oysters to survive for long, much less reproduce. When did oysters flourish there, when did they die out, and why?

Probably when white men mostly cleared the forests  for tobacco and other crops, decreasing water use by trees, and increasing the erosion of sediment.

The Wombat has a double stuffed Rule 5 Double Scoop Sunday: W*ng D*ng Sw**t P**nt*ng running at The Other McCain.

No comments:

Post a Comment