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Seven Public Fishery Oyster Bars in Talbot County are in Maryland's Top Ten Best Bars

As president of the Talbot Watermen Association and a member of the Talbot County Oyster Shell Committee, I would like to announce the successful restoration of an oyster harvest area in Talbot County waters known as Broad Creek.

The Oyster Management Review 2016 – 2020, the DNR’s survey of 232 oyster bars in Maryland, was completed in October. I am proud to say that 7 of Talbot County's oyster bars are in the top 10 Best Bars in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay. Five of these oyster bars are in Broad Creek and, two others are in the harvestable part of Harris Creek. Broad Creek also received honors of being the Best Tributary in the Bay. All seven bars are harvested and planted by the public fishery in line with the DNR’s Seed and Shell Replenishment Program.

Harris Creek Sanctuary was not included in this first study because those bars had been seeded with spat on shell (not natural spat set) in the past five years. In addition, the dredge survey could not be conducted on bars with stone substrate which would cause damage to the dredge. Stone base is used in sanctuary projects: a practice watermen are totally against. However, a second study was performed on 262 bars seeded with spat. Harris Creek Sanctuary was surveyed and did have the number 4 best bar. Broad Creek had number 1, 2, 3, 6 and 9 of the bars out of the top 10 of 262 bars in that study.

How did this happen? In 2016, the watermen intensified our efforts to plant shells, and some spat on shell in harvest areas in Broad Creek as well as harvest bars in the mouth of Harris Creek. After a low spat count bay wide the following year, the DNR’s Fall Survey revealed an extremely high count in Broad Creek so, we directed most of our Seed and Shell monies to Broad Creek. These funds come from a bushel tax on oysters, a share of funds from MDOT, and oyster surcharge fees from licenses.

Broad Creek is a good model for future success bay wide but, there are two major concerns: shell cost and shell reclamation. Due to high demand, the price of shell has gone up in the last two years from $3 to $4 per bushel. This past year we were unable to get the shells we needed because of shortages, with the shells going to aquaculture and sanctuaries, which are never reclaimed. How do we solve this problem? The answer to the shortages lies in the upper Bay on an oyster bar that ended up in last place out of 232 bars surveyed and, it is called Man O War Shoals.

Sadly, Man of War Shoals is a political nightmare. A permit has been approved but we have been waiting over 5 years for the funding to be appropriated by the three member Board of Public Works, namely, Governor Hogan, who is for obtaining the shells needed and Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot who are against. It is hard to believe that the man (Franchot) who wants to phase out the public fishing industry is the same man who could end our shell shortage. These fossilized shells are for not only the public fishery oyster bars, but also the best substrate for aquaculture. Maryland’s oyster industry needs shells and, so far, the public fishery is the only one providing the majority of it.

Making good use of the limited supply of shell is why the Seed and Shell program has a high rate of return on investment. In the nine years from 2010 to 2019, Talbot County Oyster Shell Committee spent about $1,100,000 in Broad Creek. The oyster bars produced over 394,000 bushels of oysters at a dockside value of $15.6 million. Most importantly, over 400,000 bushels of shells were produced and used not only in for public fishery oyster bar replenishment, but also, sanctuary and aquaculture. The shells had a value of over $1.2 million. And, last but not least, the important ecological benefits of clean water and reef replenishment. Both are needed to sustain healthy, productive oyster bars.

Sanctuaries are expensive to maintain and have little economic benefit. Over $30 million was spent on Harris Creek but the sanctuary produces nothing of any marketable value. No monies from harvest, no shell. Yes, there is an ecological benefit. But is it sustainable? After the sanctuary was said to be completed in 2016, taxpayers paid to reseed the bars in 2017, 2018 and 2020. Why are we reseeding bars when natural spat set is plentiful?

Another success story is the abundance of natural spat in the Chesapeake Bay. In 2020, watermen saw some record setting spat counts on the Eastern Shore from Choptank River south to the Virginia line. Again, this year we have seen higher than normal natural spat sets. We feel the tide is turning and the natural oyster populations are rebounding. As waterman we know all we can do is be prepared by returning shell to their oyster grounds, a practice used in the Seed and Shell program, a science-based program developed by Talbot County's own Oxford Laboratory. What are we waiting for?

After five years of OAC meetings once a month, we still cannot come to an agreement on this solution to our shell problem. Dredging shells from Man O War Shoals would solve that problem immediately. Computer models show the improvements in oyster population that will be made from the planting of these fossilized shells in more spat producing areas. To make matters worse, after the last five years of searching for life on Man O War Shoals (171 samples taken), only two (2) oysters have been found. That’s not quite what CBF calls the “last great three-dimensional oyster reef in the Bay”. You need live oysters to build an oyster reef. It is a pile of shells; about 100 million bushels of shells.

Sanctuaries have high investment and low rate of return. The Oyster Management Review 2016-2020 for Harris Creek Sanctuary shows in the past 5 years declines in small oysters (one to three inches), declines in market size oysters (three inches plus), and decreases in clutch, which is material for oyster spat to cling to. This is the return on $30 million spent to purchase stone and 2.49 billion spat on shell to put on top of natural oyster bars in Harris Creek. And, according to the 2020 Oyster Stock Assessment, there are now more oysters in Broad Creek than Harris Creek, even though we harvest close to 400,000 bushels of oysters in the 10 years that Harris Creek has been a sanctuary. What happened to the 2.49 billion spat taxpayer paid for? Where did it go?

We urge Comptroller Franchot and Treasurer Kopp to look at the facts and best available science. If you want more oysters in the bay, allow the watermen to use fossilized shells from Man O War Shoals. Waterman will show you how to create healthy, productive oyster reefs. We have been doing oyster restoration for over 60 years with the Seed and Shell Replenishment Program. Broad Creek is a model for success that cannot be ignored any longer.

All data comes from DNR website: Fall Survey, 2020 Stock Assessment and 2016-2020 Oyster Management Review.

Jeff Harrison

President, Talbot County Watermen Association.

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