ANNAPOLIS—Jim Reihl followed a routine over his first 30 years as an oysterman: Get to work before sunrise, harvest until he meets his quota or fatigue sets in, and head back to the docks by 3 p.m.
But his routine has changed since 2010, when the state began beefing up its development of watermen-restricted oyster sanctuaries in the hope that bivalve numbers rebound from decades of harvests, disease and declining bay health.
Maryland will get a window into the effectiveness of their sanctuaries come July, when the results of a multi-year, multi-million dollar oyster restoration project in the Chesapeake Bay become available.
Until then, oyster stakeholders throughout Maryland are playing the waiting game—a game local watermen say they can’t play much longer.
Nearly a quarter of the remaining available oyster habitats in the bay are sanctuaries, including Harris Creek, the site of the state’s restoration project. To ensure the best chance of success for the sanctuaries, the state and its partner agencies picked locations with good water quality, ideal salt levels and hard bottoms for the oysters to settle on.
Many of those locations, however, were frequently worked by watermen, according to Reihl.
“They took 25 percent of the best bottom in the state,” said Reihl, who also serves as a board member for the Maryland Oystermen Association. “If we’re not going to get that 25 percent back, and we don’t expect to get it back, you have to make do with what you got.”
Maryland oystermen brought in $14.1 million in dockside sales last year, a 15-year high, according to the Maryland Oyster Population Status Report 2014 Fall Survey. They and state officials attribute much of that success to increased harvesting in traditionally underworked areas, as well as above-average production of oyster babies, called spat, across the bay.
Additionally, early research has shown better-than-expected survival rates among oysters in the Harris Creek sanctuary, which completed spat seeding in mid-September, and a tendency for currents to push many sanctuary-spawned oysters out to commercial waters where watermen can turn them into profits.
In spite of the figures and research, many of the more than 1,000 licensed oystermen in Maryland remain wary of sanctuary efforts.
The oystermen see last year’s large haul as an initial victory in an otherwise long-term battle. Harvesting from underworked areas requires years of dredging oysters and replenishing shells, which oysters latch onto and grow from, for bars to become consistently lucrative, Reihl said.
The bigger worry, though, is that the years of restrictions will be in vain, that the Harris Creek data will show no significant difference between oyster populations in protected versus unprotected waters, or, even worse, the data will show sanctuary efforts are more prosperous than they actually are—a false positive—according to Jim Mullen, executive director of the Maryland Oystermen Association.
“I’ll be honest, the jury is out,” Mullen said. “(We) don’t know what they’ll find.”
Of particular concern is Broad Creek, a public shellfish fishing tributary that neighbors Harris Creek. Both creeks empty into the same river, the Choptank, which is also largely public.
Broad Creek produces a set of juvenile oysters each year. The big question is how researchers will determine where spat in the Choptank River came from, Mullen said. Without that determination, Broad Creek spat that end up in the Choptank River could overstate the amount emigrating from Harris Creek — and the overall success of the project, he said.
Rivers with higher spat production normally have more spat traveling out to other waters, meaning researchers could discern origins based on rivers’ individual spat levels, said Elizabeth North, associate professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory.
Origins gets murky, however, if both creeks have similar spat production.
“I don’t see how anyone is going to be able to say one way or another, unless we use some really outstanding genetic evidence that doesn’t exist yet,” North said.
The Harris Creek project cost the state and its partner agencies more than $25 million between 2011 and 2015. That money went to construction and seeding of oyster bars across 312 acres of river bottom.
The project’s success would buttress further sanctuary efforts and serve as a step toward meeting regulations for oysters and bay clean up. The state must restore oyster populations and habitats in 10 bay tributaries by 2025 to meet the goals of the Chesapeake Watershed Agreement, a state-federal plan that former Gov. Martin O’Malley signed in 2014.
“We have about 1 percent of our historic level of oysters left in the Chesapeake Bay. Obviously, that’s a pretty dire situation,” said Stephanie Westby, Chesapeake Bay Oyster Restoration Manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which partners with the state.
Estimates of oyster harvests during the late 19th century indicate hauls of 15 million bushels each year, according to the Horn Point Laboratory. Last year, harvest levels were at 416,000 bushels, according to the state’s 2014 Fall Survey.
“There’s broad recognition that we need to do (restoration) on a larger scale, and we need to do it on a sanctuary level.”
The Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup, which includes NOAA, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Oyster Recovery Partnership and the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has more sanctuary work scheduled for the Choptank River complex.
That work includes in-water restoration of 440 acres of the Little Choptank River, which began in 2014. The project plans to plant nearly 2 billion oyster seeds and will cost an estimated $29 million. Another restoration project in the nearby Tred Avon River began this year, with 24 acres of reef costing more than $2 million constructed.
Adult oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water each day, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“They’re pretty good filter feeders, so they remove a lot of the particulate algae from the bay,” said Donald Meritt, director of the hatchery program at the Horn Point Laboratory, which provides the state with oyster seed and shells. “The state is very, very interested in having healthy oyster populations, which support healthy oyster fisheries.”
Watermen argue, though, that the methods the state is using to reach that end are hurting them in the short term.
A shortage in the supply of oyster shells, for example, has pushed the state to use stone for the infrastructure of many of its new bars. The stone can entangle fishing lines, thereby impairing watermen’s ability to catch other animals like crabs and fish.
“When we start changing the bottom, that’s forever,” the oystermen association’s Mullen said. “If you’re talking about restoring a natural resource, and you’re talking about a livelihood, a culture and a way of life … yet you don’t have the main ingredient, you don’t have the shell,” then economic and financial hardships arise.
In the wake of those hardships, Gov. Larry Hogan has pledged to end the longstanding feud between watermen and the state.
“There’s been a war on rural Maryland. There’s been a war on the Eastern Shore. There’s been an outright assault on watermen and farmers, but it’s going to end…,” Hogan said at a September 2014 fundraiser in Cambridge during his gubernatorial campaign.
And Hogan’s administration has increasingly brought watermen into oyster restoration discussions—a collaboration many hope continues, according to Reihl.
“We’re not opposed to opening sanctuaries, letting us work them, then closing them back up and reseeding them,” Reihl said.
The state has also developed ways for watermen to more directly profit from sanctuary efforts. In early October, the Maryland Board of Public Works granted the Oyster Recovery Partnership $3.67 million to fund the handling of substrate used in habitat restoration. The partnership contracts out a portion of that money to local watermen, who help the state place shell on oyster bars.
Still, many watermen believe too much of the bay has been roped off for sanctuary efforts. The state can’t adequately manage all the area sanctuaries encompass, Mullen said, which often leads to neglected oyster populations and lost harvesting opportunities for the watermen.
“We continue to study the effectiveness of the sanctuaries, public fishery and aquaculture industry and will be issuing a report on these findings in July 2016,” said David Blazer, fisheries director for the Department of Natural Resources, in an email statement. “We look forward to seeing the results next summer and using that information to guide our next steps in restoring our critical oyster resource for the benefit of all Maryland citizens.”
“Oysters have been political for over 100 years, and they remain political to this day,” Meritt said. “Anytime you propose something, you can find someone who is going to have a problem with it.”