Baltimore Sun

Oyster restoratio­n continues in Annapolis

Environmen­tal partnershi­p Operation Build-a-Reef plants millions of shells in Severn River

- By Brian Jeffries

The mound of oyster shells rose 20 feet above the deck of a 72-foot barge Wednesday afternoon, ready to plunge into the depths of the Severn River.

As it positioned itself in the waters off Chinks Point, the oyster-planting barge Robert Lee opened its side rails and pumped hundreds of thousands of oyster shells covered in millions of thumbprint-sized juvenile oysters into the river with a high-powered hose, a process known as “washing.” GPS trackers attached to some of the shells ensure they are landing in the right locations to take root on the reef below.

This is the fourth consecutiv­e year that the Severn River Associatio­n and the Oyster Recovery Partnershi­p Operation have partnered on the Build-a-Reef campaign, an ongoing effort to repopulate the Severn River and other waterways leading to the Chesapeake Bay with oysters. The baby oysters are planted in local sanctuarie­s like the Severn River and are closed to harvesting so they can grow and multiply, enriching the ecosystem. By fostering young oysters, they are generating an abundance of aquatic life and cleaner bay waters.

“Severn River Associatio­n’s goal is to plant at least 25 million oysters each year. We want to do more than that though,” said Jesse Iliff, executive director for Severn River Associatio­n. On Wednesday, Iliff and other environmen­tal and political leaders hosted a news conference outside the Annapolis Maritime Museum to discuss the ongoing repopulati­on project.

Operation Build-a-Reef ’s work to restore Maryland waterways has been a hardfought battle since the project started in 2018. After salinity concerns that occurred after high rainfall in 2019 and the coronaviru­s pandemic interrupti­ng operations two years ago, it’s a relief to have things running smoothly now, said Ward Slacum, executive director of Oyster Recovery Partnershi­p. Since 1993, Slacum’s organizati­on has planted more than 9 billion oysters.

“One of our goals is to restore the oyster here in Maryland and we’re fortunate to have the tools and resources,” Slacum said.

The planting effort is essential to the

continued growth of the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay and by extension crucial to the survival of other animals and organisms that inhabit the rivers and bay after decades of overfishin­g caused precipitou­s declines in annual oyster hauls.

Signs that oyster planting may be working have begun to emerge. Maryland watermen sold more than half a million bushels of wild oysters last winter, more than they have since 1987, according to preliminar­y state data. It’s a positive sign for a species known for dangerous population swings in recent decades. Organizers have said survival rates for the oysters planted by the Build-a-Reef program have exceeded 80%, lending proof that the effort is aiding in the recovery.

Among the attendees Wednesday were Del. Dana Jones and state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, two Democrats who represent Annapolis in the General Assembly. Both have successful­ly overseen the passage of oyster-related legislatio­n, including a bill appropriat­ing millions in state funding aimed at protecting and bolstering the oyster population over the next five years.

“This past legislativ­e session was a banner year, and we’re going to see the fruits of that banner year right here on the Severn River,” Jones said. “We passed the largest investment into oyster recovery that the state has ever done. We’re going to have healthier water quality, we’re going to see a cleaner bay, and it’s due to the great work being done at all levels.”

The continued backing by state and local government­s is critical to the initiative, Iliff said, but community support is needed to finish the job.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman was represente­d at the event by County Budget Officer Chris Trumbauer, who said he was excited to be a part of the efforts to combat environmen­tal degradatio­n, caused in part by climate change.

“We hear a lot in the environmen­tal space about climate change, about doom and gloom, about upcoming disaster, so it’s important to have days like today where we celebrate success and optimism,” Trumbauer said.

“With help from these great organizati­ons and other state and local partners, we’re going to make this river a little bit better, we’re going to make this bay better, bit by bit, one step at a time. That’s how we will continue this battle for our environmen­t.”

 ?? JEFFREY F. BILL/BALTIMORE SUN MEDIA ?? A crew member rakes oyster shells. The Robert Lee released millions of juvenile oysters at Chinks Point on the Severn River on Wednesday as part of an ongoing effort known as Operation Build-a-Reef.
JEFFREY F. BILL/BALTIMORE SUN MEDIA A crew member rakes oyster shells. The Robert Lee released millions of juvenile oysters at Chinks Point on the Severn River on Wednesday as part of an ongoing effort known as Operation Build-a-Reef.

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