ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — State legislation could ban the Maryland Department of Natural Resources from dredging the Chesapeake Bay’s Man O’ War Shoal for shells destined to become homes for new baby oysters elsewhere.
In recent years, the harvest of native oysters in the Chesapeake Bay has fallen to 1 percent of what it was during the 19th century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Since 2004, the state’s Department of Natural Resources has established sanctuary areas of the bay where the harvest of wild oysters is prohibited in order to protect the remaining population.
The proposed legislation—one set that would take effect upon passage and another bill that would commence in June—would prevent the Department of Natural Resources from extracting oyster shells from the historic reef, located in Baltimore County near the mouth of the Patapsco River.
While the Department of Natural Resources and watermen wish to disperse the recovered shell to replenish oyster beds elsewhere in the bay, some lawmakers and opponents of the bill have argued that alternative substances may be a more viable option for restoring their habitat.
Proposed in 2009, the dredging project would use the estimated 5 million bushels of shell that would be recovered from the Man O’ War reef—about 5-5.5 percent of the reef—to create or restore oyster habitat in up to 10 Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
When water temperature reaches a certain level, usually between June and September, oysters will begin to spawn.
The oyster larvae drifting through the water need a solid foundation to attach to in order to grow.
While they usually cling to beds of old oyster shells like those at Man O’ War, in recent years, materials like granite have been tested as an alternative resource, according to Department of Natural Resources Assistant Secretary Bill Anderson.
Though the long-term effects of putting these substances in the bay have been researched, scientists hold conflicting opinions about their harmfulness, Anderson said.
The Department of Natural Resources is opposed to all of the proposed legislation and plans to proceed with their dredging proposal, according to Anderson.
Lawmakers, however, have disagreed on the best course of action for oyster bed restoration.
“The science is getting better and better, and research is getting more clear,” that usage of alternative substrate—material other than oyster shells—could be the solution to restoring the oyster population of the bay, said Delegate Stephen Lafferty, D-Baltimore County, the primary sponsor of the emergency bill.
Delegate Robin L. Grammer Jr., R-Baltimore County, said he is optimistic that the legislation will pass despite the failure of a similar bill last session. The non-emergency version, which Grammer is sponsoring, would go into effect June 1; lawmakers heard testimony on that bill late last month.
Grammer said he doesn’t believe the shell-removal project would be beneficial to the long-term health of the bay. He said the proposed dredging would be “destroying a natural resource as a short-term solution.”
One emergency bill — part of a paired set of twinned legislation — was heard by the Maryland Senate Thursday.
The Department of Natural Resources received a provisional permit May 17 from the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The permit is pending for final approval from the Maryland Board of Public Works and the Maryland Department of the Environment Tidal Wetlands Division, Lafferty said.
But watermen are hopeful the state will scrape shell from the Man ‘O War Shoal and spread it elsewhere in order to eventually boost the state’s historically declining oyster population , according to Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.
“We need shells now to enhance our oyster bars and our tributaries,” Brown said.
Brown noted that in Virginia, it takes about 90 days to receive a dredging permit, while this project has taken nearly 10 years to get underway.
Since its inception, the Department of Natural Resources’ Man O’ War Shoal Dredging Project has narrowed the portion of the reef intended to be dredged.
The eastern boundary of the proposed dredging region was tapered in April in order to remove the portion located within the Man O’ War/Gales Lump Sanctuary from the dredging area, Anderson said.
The western third of the reef has also been excluded from the dredging region to avoid disturbing the spat on shell, or freshly attached oyster larvae, that had been placed there in 1995, 2000, 2006 and 2013, according to the project proposal.