Army Corps presents plans for next Tred Avon phase

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - By JOSH BOLLINGER OBIT­U­ARY POL­ICY

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

EAS­TON

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.

PHOTO BY JOSH BOLLINGER

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.

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