Harris Creek planting resumes

In this July 2014 file photo, 15 tons of shells with oyster spat set on them are piled on board the Patricia Campbell, the boat the Chesapeake Bay Foundation uses for restoration work and spat plantings.

EASTON — Midway results are in for Maryland’s oyster sanctuary under the 2014 Chesapeake Watershed Agreement, and according to the assessment completed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the “monitoring information is promising.”

Harris Creek, a Mid-Shore tidal creek surrounded by the Bay Hundred area of Talbot County, was the first tributary picked for an oyster sanctuary under the plan, which calls for 10 tributaries to be restored by 2025.

Scientists and fisheries managers developed a set of oyster metrics to determine success criteria, and that includes things like oysters density and biomass, if there are multiple year classes on reefs, or how the structure and footprint of the reefs have developed.

Of the 350-acre oyster sanctuary in Harris Creek, the assessment, completed last year, gives a snapshot of 90 of those acres completed in 2013. It is those reefs’ three-year assessment, and another will be performed in 2019. Other reefs in Harris Creek completed in 2014 and 2015 will get three-year and then six-year assessments, too.

According to the assessment, 97 percent of those 90 acres met minimum threshold success criteria for both oyster density and oyster biomass, and 80 percent exceeded the higher target for density and biomass. One hundred percent of the reefs had multiple year classes.

The assessment also found the highest average oyster densities were found on stone-base reefs — four times higher than shell-base reefs, followed by shell-base reefs and then seed-only reefs, or those with only baby oysters planted in the water.

“It is unknown at this time why the stone-base reefs show higher average oyster densities than other treatments,” the assessment reads.

The assessment states there likely is more exposed surface area on the stone-based structures, which act as man-made reefs, for baby oyster to set on and grow. Another supposition is that traditional oyster harvest gear is ineffective on stone reefs, therefore the reefs are protected from poaching that shell-base and seed-only reefs lack, the assessment states.

The Harris Creek sanctuary has been shrouded in controversy since its beginnings. Watermen initially expressed concern that the state and federal government were taking away some of their best oystering bottom, and debates continue today on whether stone or shell is most conducive to oyster growth, and whether the results of the sanctuary project is worth the $26 million price tag.

Watermen often point to neighboring Broad Creek as a means to show oyster bottom does not have to be turned into a sanctuary to be productive.

Broad Creek is one of the Mid-Shore most productive oystering grounds, in terms of oyster population densities and continued growth. During the season, watermen have been hitting their daily limits fishing in a creek where only shell was placed, shell that also is worked by dredging and tonging gear, knocking down any potential three-dimensional structure that could form, which is one of the basis of the sanctuary project.

But Broad Creek always has been more productive than Harris Creek, said Allison Colden, a Maryland fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Colden said that when the restoration project started in Harris Creek, “there were very few oysters left in Harris Creek, if any at all.” Taking Harris Creek’s history compared to where i’s sanctuary areas are now, “overall, that’s pretty impressive in my book,” she said.

“That’s the whole point of restoration. We spent the money, and we’re getting good results,” she said. “That’s kind of the point, right? We spent the money, and we did it in this way at a large scale, because that’s what the science is telling us works. What we’re seeing is all signs point to yes, it’s working.”

Harris Creek is the first time a project of that scale has been done, “and we’re still learning every time we do out to do this,” Colden said — what’s the most efficient way to go about oyster restoration and bolster the population.

But for others, the juice at Harris Creek might not be worth the squeeze.

It’s no surprise to Del. Johnny Mautz, R-37B-Talbot, that oysters grew in Harris Creek — that was the whole point.

“The scientists want to demonstrate that they can grow oysters, and that’s what that data indicates, that they can grow oysters,” Mautz said. “They don’t talk about the amount of money that’s been put into this effort to grow oysters.”

“My question is: Based off the limited resources that we have, what’s the most effective and most efficient means of growing oysters?” Mautz said. “If you look at the shell program that was discontinued, at a price of $2 million, the entire Bay was prepared for another year of spat, another year of growth.”

Is it good that oysters are growing? Yes, Mautz said, but “what’s our plan?”

There are three tributaries so far involved with Maryland’s portion of the 2014 Chesapeake Watershed Agreement — Harris Creek, the Little Choptank River and the Tred Avon River, all of which are in Mid-Shore waters.

But there isn’t significant investment happening in other sanctuaries from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on south, and conditions in those sanctuaries are deteriorating and the oyster populations are fading, Mautz said.

The issue of oyster sanctuaries came up in this year’s legislative session in Annapolis. A bill passed that requires the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science to perform a study on the entire oyster stock in Maryland and find a biological reference point, to further inform management decisions. Meanwhile, the boundaries of Maryland’s sanctuaries are not to be touched.

Mautz tried to get an amendment attached to the bill that would have allowed watermen to start a rotational harvest in sanctuaries that are not performing well. The idea was that by working the bottom and bringing up some of the oyster that have silted over or sunk into the ground, it would help with future population growth — a common belief by many watermen that they say helps with productivity in places like Broad Creek. The amendment was unsuccessful.

Mautz also wants the fishery’s managers to look at the collateral damage that taking an area of oystering bottom out of harvest can have, which is something Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has said since he was campaigning in 2014 that he will put into thought more than the previous administration did.

For instance, Tilghman Island, which is just west of Harris Creek, “has suffered by this in a big way, economically,” Mautz said.

“Those sorts of impacts, they need to be taken into consideration, and that has nothing to do with this (NOAA assessment),” he said. “This is science in a vacuum.”

Follow me on Twitter @jboll_stardem.

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