ANNAPOLIS – Oyster spawning season is approaching, and with it comes the need to dredge and move old shells — part of a decades-old oyster repletion program.
But funding for the program has dropped so much that C.J. Langenfelder & Son Inc., a Kent Island company that has performed the task since 1960, might not renew its contract with the state, a company representative said at a recent meeting of the Eastern Shore’s legislative delegation.
“If we don’t negotiate a contract by July 1 then the shell business stops,” said James R. Matters, general manager for the company’s marine division.
June 30 marks the end of the state’s current contract, which is one of several extensions of a five-year contract drawn up in 1986.
Loss of the program “would be devastating to the Chesapeake Bay oyster industry,” said Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester.
“It’s a very significant and important program,” said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset. “We need to find more funding.”
In 1987, dredged shell funding was $1.5 million. By 1995, the amount had declined to roughly $471,000. Preliminary appropriations for this year are $400,000, Peter Jensen, director of fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, told the shore delegation.
Matters, in a telephone interview, said, “We can’t work for that kind of money. There is too much they want us to do for that money.”
And there is no other company equipped with the million- dollar machinery necessary to dredge, move and clean the oysters, he said.
Matters’ claim was backed up by the DNR’s Bill Outten, director of the repletion program: “That’s probably the only [company] in the country that does it.”
Failure to renew Langenfelder’s contract “would endanger the program tremendously,” Outten said. “The shells are the backbone of the program.”
Outten said oysters help the bay by controlling “the density of algae,” which deplete water of nutrients and, when it decays, of oxygen.
But the environmental benefits of the repletion program are not primary, he said. Foremost is “a fishery with harvestable oysters.” And that, he said, benefits Maryland’s watermen and economy.
Oysters reproduce in June and July when they release larvae into the water. As larvae grow heavier, they attach to hard surfaces, forming fingernail-sized “spats,” or baby oysters.
The number of larvae that grow into spats can be maximized when clean shells are planted just prior to spawning, Outten said. Basically, oysters do not adhere well to shells covered with silt or sediment.
As part of the repletion program, oyster shells thousands of years old are dredged from the bottom of the bay, sifted through large screens and sprayed with bay water for cleaning, then moved to areas where reproduction is most intense.
When the DNR launched the program, “there had been several years of poor harvest,” Outten said. “It was known then that oysters would attach to fresh, clean shells, rather than dirty shells.”
Jensen said that in the program’s first year, it was supported with slightly more than a million dollars from state general funds.
But that support was lost early, he said. Now the program is funded with a combination of federal funds and fees paid by watermen. That includes a license fee, a $300 surcharge to sell oysters and a $1 per bushel harvest tax, Jensen said.
Still, those funds have not been enough to cover the production and maintenance fees for barges that each move 60,000 bushels of shells and equipment for dredging and cleaning, Matters said. It costs about $1 million annually to fix equipment, he said.
One example: a cutter, the device that draws the shells out of the bay, can cost about $60,000 to replace new. Currently, Matters’ company is rebuilding a cutter at a cost of $17,000.
Matters said his company has worked for less than $1 million in the past because “we were asked by people in the state … to stick this out” in concern for the welfare of the Chesapeake Bay.
Under the 1986 contract, Langenfelder also had to donate 50,000 cubic yards of dredged and clean shells per year to the state. By multiplying that number by the average cost of shells per cubic yard — about $6, according to the DNR — Matters determined that he had given the state an estimated $350,000 worth each year.
Outten, however, pointed out that the contract allows Langenfelder to dredge oyster shell for its own use. In his view, “It’s a win-win situation.” Sarah Taylor-Rogers, the DNR’s assistant secretary, said the secretaries of the Department of Transportation, the Department of Business and Economic Development and the DNR met recently to discuss contributing about $500,000 more to the program. A decision will be made by Friday, Taylor-Rogers said. -30-