Common Sense Oyster Restoration

Bay, taxpayers need common sense oyster restoration

Posted on The Star Democrat Opinion: Sunday, February 7, 2016 3:30 am
To see the article on the Star Democrat, visit this link: http://www.stardem.com/opinion/columns/article_44e6bfd3-c8a3-5fde-8c03-0d5c472df545.html

Recent headlines for guest comments have stated, “Oyster work should continue” and “Math error halts large oyster restoration.” Let’s take a moment to consider these headlines.

 Of course oyster restoration should continue; we can all agree to that. The question then becomes, in what direction should we proceed?
Until recently, we were full speed ahead in the direction of sanctuaries. In 2009, the state of Maryland took 24 percent of the most productive oyster bottom out of public fishery access and placed it into the sanctuaries.

They assured the citizens of Maryland that they had a restoration plan that in five years time would not only restore sanctuaries, but would overpopulate them so much that excess oyster larvae would pour out of these sanctuaries and populate all of the surrounding areas for miles and miles. We (the watermen community) sat down with the Maryland Department of Natural Resource officials, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

We actively shared our concerns that not only does oyster restoration not work that way, but that these sanctuaries would place a terrible financial burden on our already struggling communities.

We were told our financial concerns take a back seat to overall oyster restoration and, after all, “best science available” says sanctuaries work.

Who represents “best science available?” The Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup, that’s who. This group consists of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oyster Recovery Partnership, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Nature Conservancy, University of Maryland Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies, Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Actively working with this group is the Midshore River Keepers.

Quite an impressive group. None of which has the hands-on experience that watermen have.

So we thought, “Let’s partner with these folks and work together to achieve the oyster restoration that we all seek.” Surely with their “science” and our experience, we can achieve our goals.

Watermen were promptly told no thanks, we don’t need your help. The Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup are the “experts.” So we spent five years trying to point out the flaws in the sanctuary concept, to no avail.

Enter the Hogan Administration. Upon Gov. Hogan’s election, we asked again to be a part of the process. We were promptly granted a seat at the table to offer our input. By now, the five-year Harris Creek project was finished and the Tred Avon project was just starting.

We said, “Let’s examine the data on the new completed Harris Creek project and use that data to determine what is working and what isn’t, so that we can move forward with a successful strategy.”

The Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup told us that data will not be ready until July! Really? This project has been heavily monitored by “best science available” for five years! No data from Harris Creek is to be used moving forward until July? By then, the Tred Avon project will be almost complete. We believe all data from Harris Creek should be applied to restoration efforts in the Tred Avon.

Something smelled fishy! Watermen recognize that smell. We decided to search for ourselves. We researched Maryland Department of Natural Resources fall spat (baby oyster) survey index, and lo and behold, numbers are available! The numbers however don’t support the $47 million agenda of the Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup. DNR data clearly shows that the reproductive levels of Harris Creek are no higher now than they were before sanctuaries began. Exactly what we tried to tell them five years ago!

Again, there is a better way. Right next door to Harris Creek is Broad Creek. During the time period Harris Creek has been in sanctuary, Broad Creek has been in public fishery. While Harris Creek production has been stagnant, Broad Creek’s reproductive levels have doubled while also supporting an active public fishery. These successful oyster restoration efforts in the public fishery areas have been fully funded by the watermen themselves, at no cost to the taxpayer. Industry agreed upon surcharges, increased license fees and environmental restoration payments have fully funded these public fishery restorations.

Let’s take a look at the headline “Math error halts oyster restoration.” In that guest comment, written by Tim Junkin, founder of the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, Lisa Kellogg from Virginia Institute of Marine Science concluded that watermen made a “math error.” Not true! We used actual DNR data taken directly from DNR’s website. Data that DNR collected, compiled and presented as fact. It’s not our fault if facts don’t fit your agenda, Mrs. Kellogg.

In that same column, Angie Sowers from Army Corps of Engineers is quoted as saying oysters planted in Harris Creek “are too young to spawn.”

Again, not true. Sanctuary oysters are not at peak spawning age yet. Most are, however, at spawning age and have been for years. Look it up for yourselves. Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup has, by their own claim, planted more than 2 billion oysters in Harris Creek. They are currently celebrating the fact that they have improved the livability rate of these planted oysters by 100 percent! Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Again, let’s look at the data. The original mortality rate for these planted oysters was 90 percent. Yes, that’s 90 percent that die before reaching maturity. They have improved that rate to 80 percent mortality. A 100 percent improvement. Why is it that we never hear about 80 to 90 percent death rate? The public only hears about 2 billion oyster planted and 100 percent improvement. Information promoted by the Maryland Oyster Restoration Interagency Workgroup is deceptive to the point of calling it propaganda. Again, the data doesn’t fit their agenda. Bet you’ve never heard about the tens of thousands of dollars of damage to boats (mostly recreational) that have occurred in Harris Creek, due to misplaced slabs of granite (yes, granite) in shallow water, by the Army Corps. This violates the Army Corps own contract. We have brought this to their attention for months with no solution yet to be found. Vessels still striking submerged non-native stone put in sanctuaries in violation of Army Corps specifications is not our idea of effective sanctuary management.

Peyton Richardson of NOAA asks if NOAA financial resources would be better served if applied elsewhere. We believe that is a question that should be seriously considered before any more taxpayer dollars are spent toward a plan that fails to reach its objectives while causing environmental damage and costing millions of taxpayer dollars.

Ask yourselves, why does it take a group of watermen to bring this information to the public’s attention when “best science available” had access to the data all along?

What about all these wonderful “nonprofit environmental restoration” groups that support these sanctuaries? What is their intent in promoting these sanctuaries? Check out their websites. All tout their role in “successful oyster restoration” and suggest that this wonderful work can only continue with your financial support to their organization. Do you smell what we smell?

Thank God for the Hogan Administration and U.S. Rep. Andy Harris. When we called them and asked to discuss this matter and present this information, they were willing to listen.

Upon seeing the facts, they asked the Army Corps to delay the Tred Avon project until July when all the data could be examined to determine how to reach our oyster restoration goals with the most cost-effective plan available to the taxpayer.

Please take all the facts presented in this article and research their accuracy for yourselves.

We believe oyster restoration benefits all segments of our community and that we need to move forward with a plan that is cost effective, as well as successful in reaching our goals.

We invite all citizens to partner with us at Talbot County Watermen Association to seek a cost-effective solution to oyster restoration and we look forward to working together with all groups, both public and private, to achieve these goals.

Bunky Chance is the president of the Talbot County Watermen Association.