Army Corps presents plans for next Tred Avon phase
Special from the Star Democrat
— The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a public hearing in Easton Tuesday to collect comments about the next phase of oyster sanctuary construction and plantings planned for the Tred Avon River.
Angie Sowers, a biologist with the Army Corps, gave the overview of the next Tred Avon phase at the Talbot County Community Center in a room packed mostly with watermen and also some environmental community supporters of the current track of the state’s oyster sanctuary efforts.
In 2010, Maryland doubled down on its efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay’s dwindling oyster population. Officials expanded the sanctuary concept, where oysters are off limits to harvest in the hopes that multiple generations develop disease resistance and grow as vertical reefs in the water column, providing environmental benefits through water filtration, and also with hopes the sanctuaries help seed neighboring commercial bars.
The first target was Harris Creek, where more than 2 billion hatchery-raised oysters were planted on more than 350 acres spread throughout the creek. The Little Choptank and Tred Avon River have also been adopted as sanctuaries.
Sowers said 35 acres of substrate — or artificial reef constructed from stone or mixed shell — and seedonly planting have been completed so far in the Tred Avon River. The goal is to restore 146 acres in the Tred Avon, a mix of seeded artificial reef or planted shell with baby oysters (spat-onshell).
The Army Corps wants to extend reef construction in the Tred Avon to water depths with at least 6 feet of navigational clearance, as opposed to the acres constructed so far with at least 8 feet of navigational clearance.
The Army Corps currently is permitted to construct reefs with at least 8 feet of navigational clearance and must go through a public process and be approved to extend reef construction into shallower waters, hence the point of Tuesday’s public hearing.
A map of the Tred Avon Sowers presented during the hearing Tuesday night showed the Tred Avon’s bottom mostly is mud in shallow waters, which is why she said the Army Corps needs to extend reef construction into shallower waters in areas that have been identified as having hard bottom. Oysters planted in mud can sink and die.
The proposal is to construct 54 acres of artificial reefs across 31 sites with at least 6 feet of navigational clearance and plant 71 acres of spat-on-shell on existing
reefs, Sowers said.
Sowers was among those on a panel of scientists Tuesday night who answered questions written down on cards by members of the audience.
A lot of the questions were ones that have been circulating in the watermen community regarding the effectiveness of sanctuaries, cost, materials being used, and whether the watermen will ever be able to harvest again from the sanctuary bottom (not if Army Corps federal money is attached to the sanctuary, according to current federal law).
Some questions were about the navigational clearance proposed in the Tred Avon, and less were not questions but statements both against and in support of the state’s current track for sanctuary projects. The panel members’ answers were often met with scoffs and further questions from watermen in the room.
Harris Creek has seen its own navigational troubles from artificial reefs constructed in the waterway. Watermen found themselves running their boats into some of the Harris Creek reefs, which were supposed to maintain at least 5 feet of navigational clearance, but did not.
Sowers said the company contracted to build the reefs in Harris Creek switched bucket sizes and miscalculated how much substrate to place on the bottom. The Army Corps has taken steps to ensure accurate calculations, she said, by requiring a certain bucket size and marking the 6-foot water depth line on the arm of the contractor’s crane so crews can check water depth as they work.
She also said Army Corps plans to monitor water depths much sooner after construction in the Tred Avon, “so if there are any mistakes they can be caught in a more timely fashion than what happened in Harris Creek.”
Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said the association is opposed to any more permits being granted until the issues with navigation at Harris Creek are resolved.
“What they have done in Harris Creek and what they have done with all these places with these boats running ashore, tearing them up,” Brown said. “We’ve been lucky so far that nobody’s been hurt. Does it take somebody being hurt before they go do something? Do you want this pile of stones out in front of your house?”
Brown criticized the plan to mark the lines on the crane, saying it won’t work. He said what happened in Harris Creek is likely going to happen in the Tred Avon, and that there is not enough clearance for artificial reefs to be built in the river’s shallow waters. He also said it will likely impact crabbers who use trot lines.
“As far as I’m concerned, the Army Corps is in violation of their permit by having these stones within the surface where boats can hit them when they’re supposed to have 5-foot of water over them,” he said. “If we did something in the fishery business, we get a ticket (and) we have to go to court. All this has just been kind of shoved off, and shoved off and shoved off.
Scientists say a recently released study by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources shows the sanctuaries in Maryland, mainly Harris Creek, are starting to show signs of working as planned.
The study says the biomass in Harris Creek and other sanctuaries is increasing, while the biomass in public fishery areas is starting to decline, after both zones were benefitted with good oyster year classes several years earlier. However, it also says it is too early to tell whether or not the current sanctuary projects will definitively be successful in Maryland and work as theorized.
Talbot County Waterman’s Association President Bunky Chance questioned the study Tuesday night as the public hearing wound down.
Both he, and Sowers earlier in the night, called Harris Creek an experiment. Chance questioned why the state and federal officials are so eager to move forward with other sanctuary projects, like the Tred Avon, when it’s not fully known whether or not Harris Creek will work as planned.
Chance also questioned the oyster reproductivity and mortality rates of Harris Creek, adding that they are not much different from neighboring public fishery areas, despite the state and federal government collectively spending $26 million to put a sanctuary in Harris Creek. The Tred Avon sanctuary is estimated to cost around $11.5 million.
Sowers said different Harris Creek phases will be studied every three and six years from the date of completion. A final study on the final oyster plantings in the creek in 2015 will not be completed until 2021, she said, later referencing a 2014 agreement between Maryland and Virginia and the Environmental Protection Agency to restore 10 tributaries by 2025.
The clock is ticking on that deadline, she said, and scientists are using the best information and blueprints available to move forward and try to meet it, she said.
“We have one glimpse of 12 sites (in Harris Creek). We don’t have a glimpse of the entire 350 acres, so to say that it’s unsuccessful ... it’s not done yet,” Sowers said.
“Right, based on the fact that it’s not done yet, that you have one glimpse; why would you want to then take $11 million and replicate a plan that you just said you only have one glimpse of to determine its rate of success?” Chance responded. “Why would you charge forward, other than the fact that the federal money is in the pipeline and if you don’t spend it, you lose it?”
The state’s Oyster Advisory Commission is charged with considering options for possible changes to Maryland’s current sanctuary plan in light of DNR’s more than 900-page study that was recently released, and is slated to do so in the coming months.
“One thing we can all agree on — there is a huge negative economic impact to our (waterman) community with these projects ... Mortgages impacted, kids not going to school, groceries not being put on the table. That’s a fact,” Chance said. “Listen, we all want oyster restoration. It’s critical ... to the environmental side, to our community; it’s desperately critical. But don’t we want to make sure we get it right? Don’t we what to make sure that we have a successful blueprint?”
Written comments on the Army Corps’ navigational height proposal in the Tred Avon will be accepted until the comment period closes on Aug. 19. Written comments can be sent via email to MD.OysterRestoration@ asace.army.mil or via mail to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, ATTN Angie Sowers, 10 S. Howard St., Suite 11600, Baltimore MD 21201.
Oysters are sprayed from a boat onto a public bar in the Choptank River in July as part of a harvestable oyster restoration project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers presented its plan Tuesday for the next phase of the Tred Avon River oyster sanctuary, where oysters will be off limits from harvesting.