Sum­mer shine

Oys­ters planted on bar in Chop­tank River

Dorchester Star - - Front Page - By JOSH BOLLINGER jbollinger@star­dem.com

CAM­BRIDGE — A hand tong­ing bar in the Chop­tank River was planted with more than 10 mil­lion baby oys­ters, or spat, on Tues­day, July 19.

The plant­ing, while still part of the state’s plan for oys­ters, is dif­fer­ent in that the oys­ters were planted on a pub­lic bar, rather than in sanc­tu­ar­ies where wa­ter­men can’t har­vest.

It’s part of a pro­gram where county wa­ter­men as­so­ci­a­tions and the Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources part­ner to plant hatch­eryraised oys­ter spat on pub­lic bars.

DNR Sec­re­tary Mark Bel­ton said wa­ter­men are charged $1 for ev­ery bushel of oys­ters they har vest. That money is al­lo­cated to a spe­cial fund, which is spent on ac­tiv­i­ties like the Dick­er­son oys­ter plant­ing on Tues­day that are specif­i­cally re­quested by county oys­ter com­mit­tees.

“If you har­vest an area, you’ve got to put shell back at some point for the spat to ad­here to and grow for the oys­ters in the fu­ture,” Bel­ton said.

Bel­ton, along with Univer­sity of Mary­land Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence Horn Point Lab­o­ra­tory Di­rec­tor Don­ald “Mutt” Mer­ritt, and Oys­ter Re­cov­ery Part­ner­ship mem­bers got aboard Dorch­ester water­man Ben Parks’ boat on Tues­day and sailed out to Dick­er­son oys­ter bar, known col­lo­qui­ally as Turtle­back, in the Chop­tank River.

There they met with ORP boat Robert Lee, which car­ried a mound of oys­ter shells and power hosed them from the boat’s deck

into the wa­ter over­top Dick­er­son bar.

Parks, who is also on the state’s Oys­ter Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion, ver­i­fied the plant­ing. The spot was cho­sen by the Dorch­ester County Wa­ter­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion, and the plant­ing was fa­cil­i­tated through ORP, which pro­vided the shells from its shell re­cy­cling pro­gram, and the Horn Point Lab­o­ra­tory, which grew the spat and placed the oys­ters on the shells.

The bar has been re­ceiv­ing hatch­ery oys­ters for the past sev­eral years, Parks said. Wa­ter­men will be able to legally har­vest the oys­ters planted Tues­day once they grow to mar­ket size in about three years.

Oys­ter are revered in the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay for their abil­ity to fil­ter po­ten­tially harm­ful nu­tri­ents out of the wa­ter. But what’s more im­por­tant is the fil­ter feeder com­mu­nity that col­o­nizes oys­ter bars, of which the oys­ters them­selves are the build­ing blocks, Mer­ritt said.

“We can take you up to a place up in front of the (Cam­bridge) Hy­att where ev­ery oys­ter is just wrapped up with mus­sels,” Mer­ritt said. “Those mus­sels also fil­ter, so it’s not just the fil­ter­ing ca­pac­ity of the oys­ters, it’s the fil­ter­ing ca­pac­ity of the reef com­mu­nity that wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the oys­ters.”

Plant­ing the oys­ters not only pro­vides eco­log­i­cal ben­e­fits to the Dick­er­son bar, but it also puts oys­ters there for wa­ter­men to even­tu­ally har­vest, once the oys­ters reach at least 3 inches in size.

Parks said wa­ter­men used to plant Dick­er­son bar with wild seed, but added that if it wasn’t for the hatch­ery seed, the oys­ters would re­pro­duce “at a rate so small it’s not eco­nom­i­cal for the wa­ter­men to har­vest there.”

Mer­ritt said the wild seed wasn’t of the same qual­ity as the hatch­ery seed.

“There weren’t as many spat per bushel in the wild seed. You would move stuff up here that’s got 100 to 500 spat per bushel on it,” he said. “This stuff (hatch­ery oys­ters) has prob­a­bly got 3,000 spat per bushel on it, so you could put shell over in the hopes that you’ve got a strike on them. They didn’t al­ways catch, so if you put that shell over and you did get a strike, you’ve got noth­ing to move.”

Mer­ritt said Horn Point checks each tank, in which it raises oys­ter lar­vae and where they catch to the shell, be­fore the oys­ters are de­ployed for plant­ing. If there’s not enough spat, more lar­vae can be added, “so we’re tak­ing a lot of the guess work out of oys­ter restora­tion in that, and it works,” he said.

Dick­er­son bar is only open to hand tong­ing. If more ef­fi­cient gear is used there, like patent tongs or dredg­ing, the oys­ters on that bar would be gone in about two weeks dur­ing oys­ter sea­son, Parks said.

Only al­low­ing hand tongs there al­lows wa­ter­men to work through most of the win­ter, and the same goes with ar­eas of Broad Creek, an­other pub­lic fish­ery area, and a place called River bar out­side Til­gh­man Is­land, he said.

Mer­ritt called the Bay’s oys­ter pop­u­la­tion “re­cruit­mentlim­ited” and “brood­stock-lim­ited,” mean­ing re­pro­duc­tion lev­els are de­pen­dent on the oys­ter pop­u­la­tion al­ready there.

“There is no site that I’m aware of ... that has the in­ten­sity of spat fall and the reg­u­lar­ity of spat fall con­ducive to have a grow­ing oys­ter pop­u­la­tion,” he said. “Back in the 1960s, you had places that would con­sis­tently give you 1,000 or more spat per bushel. In the last 20 years, you’ll be lucky to find a place that’s got 100 spat per bushel.”

Asked why spat re­cruit­ment has de­clined, Mer­ritt said it’s a hard ques­tion to an­swer.

He pointed to anoxic wa­ter — ar­eas with no oxy­gen that oys­ters need to sur­vive — and shell buried un­der mud that used to be on top of the bot­tom’s sur­face as be­ing part of the prob­lem.

But he pointed back to there not be­ing enough brood­stock, or re­pro­duc­tion-age oys­ters, as why spat re­cruit­ment, over­all, has de­clined.

“If you be­lieve what some sci­en­tists have said ... we are now, our oys­ter pop­u­la­tions, are at 1 per­cent of his­toric lev­els,” he said. “If every­thing else be­ing equal, you should see one per­cent of their re­cruit­ment, be­cause you took 99 out of 100 par­ents away. I think that’s a big part of it.”

“Which is why the sanc­tu­ary pro­gram can be so im­por­tant. It can pro­vide that brood­stock ... those oys­ters can spawn be­fore they’re big enough to be legally har­vested,” he said.

The DNR is work­ing on a five-year re­port for its sanc­tu­ary pro­gram, and it’s due out this July.

Tal­bot County wa­ter­men in De­cem­ber 2015 suc­cess­fully protested re­main­ing sanc­tu­ary con­struc­tion be­ing done by the U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers in the Tred Avon River. They claimed that a com­pleted sanc­tu­ary, Har­ris Creek, wasn’t pro­vid­ing any more oys­ter spat re­cruit­ment than its neigh­bor­ing pub­lic fish­ery creek, Broad Creek, de­spite the 2 bil­lion oys­ters planted there.

The wa­ter­men wanted to de­lay sanc­tu­ary con­truc­tion in the Tred Avon River un­til the five-year oys­ter sanc­tu­ary re­port is re­leased and a con­clu­sion with all the data can be made on how to move for­ward with Mary­land oys­ter restora­tion.

The Tred Avon River part of that re­port has been given to the state’s Oys­ter Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion, which is sched­uled to meet on July 25 and come to a con­sen­sus on how to move for­ward with the Tred Avon River.

PHOTO BY DUSTIN HOLT

The Chop­tank River Light­house glows be­neath the blue evening sum­mer sky as the July sun sets along the wa­ter­front at Long Wharf Park in Cam­bridge.

PHO­TOS BY JOSH BOLLINGER

Oys­ters are hosed off the Robert Lee, a boat owned by the Oys­ter Re­cov­ery Part­ner­ship, onto Dick­er­son oys­ter bar in the Chop­tank River on Tues­day, July 19.

PHOTO BY JOSH BOLLINGER

The Robert Lee, a boat owned by the Oys­ter Re­cov­ery Part­ner­ship, be­gins to dump 10 mil­lion oys­ter spat on Dick­er­son oys­ter bar, in the Chop­tank River, on Tues­day, July 19. Dorch­ester County Wa­ter­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion specif­i­cally chose Dick­er­son bar, a hand tong­ing area, for the plant­ing.

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