Blaming the oyster restoration work in Harris Creek for the new state-issued pollution notices described in the May 3 article titled “MDE closes most of Harris Creek to shellfish harvesting” is ill-informed and seems purposefully designed to stoke false propaganda about the oyster restoration effort. The article claims that the source of the pollution leading to the health notice is the “overpopulation of oysters,” referring to the large-scale restoration of 348 acres of oyster reefs in Harris Creek. This is scientifically incorrect. In fact, it is scientifically impossible.
What causes the state to issue a health hazard for eating raw oysters are fecal bacteria. Fecal bacteria are found in the waste from warm-blooded animals (humans, deer, waterfowl, etc.). Oysters are not warm-blooded. They are cold-blooded shelled invertebrates, meaning the oysters themselves could not be the source of the pollution. But oysters do filter water as one of their many ecosystem benefits, and if fecal bacteria invade the water, the bacteria will accumulate in the oysters’ meat. This is why shellfish areas are tested routinely by the state — not by ShoreRivers — which then designates Shellfish Closure Areas in locations with high fecal bacteria levels, in order to protect humans from eating those oysters. To claim that the pollution originates from the “overpopulation of oysters” is biological nonsense.
The article fails to mention the type or the source of pollution entirely and distracts from what landowners and community members that live around Harris Creek can do to help reverse these pollution trends. While the state’s data shows high fecal bacteria levels, it does not conclude a point source. But we do know that common sources of fecal bacteria include failing septic systems, wildlife and domestic animal waste, and runoff from some agricultural operations. At ShoreRivers, we focus on science-based solutions that have meaningful impacts on water quality. Actions that landowners around Harris Creek can take to help address fecal bacteria pollution — which the article fails to mention — include: 1) have your septic system pumped out now and routinely in the future (recent heavy rains stress out septic systems, causing bacteria overflows that wash through the ground and to the river); 2) manage runoff coming from farm fields and residential lands, as runoff can transport waste from wildlife and domestic animals (wetlands, buffers and other farm practices are effective at capturing polluted runoff before it washes into the river; 3) incorporate native plants, rain gardens and other river-friendly yard practices on your residential property.
ShoreRivers has programs to provide technical and, in some cases, financial assistance to help landowners with these efforts and to stop pollution before it gets to our rivers. And the Swimmable ShoreRivers Program is a monitoring effort to help keep citizens abreast of safe swimming conditions. Results are accessible to all citizens throughout the summer on the Swim Guide website at swimguide.org.
The Star Democrat article focuses mainly on the wild oyster fishery, which is restricted in Harris Creek. However, oyster aquaculture is allowed in Harris Creek, and there are several small businesses that actually will be impacted by this pollution notice. A recent economic report on Maryland’s shellfish aquaculture industry concluded that it contributes $9 million per year on average to the state’s economy. Managing pollution on the land before it gets in the rivers can have a huge impact in helping to protect Maryland small businesses. So instead of fueling a controversial issue with misleading information, I urge all landowners to focus on real solutions that address real pollution problems so our rivers can be healthier for everyone.