With oyster recovery a seemingly perpetual goal for Chesapeake Bay users, a new pilot program from the St. Mary's Shellfish Association seeks to bolster the bay's wild oyster population, cultivating the only oyster seed area in Maryland waters.

In the St. Mary's River, known for its natural spat set, the committee has reserved 9 acres of public bottom to launch a seeding program, planting oyster shells there to potentially help boost wild oyster numbers in low recruitment areas of the bay.

“It's a continuing program we're trying to get going again in St. Mary's,” Brian Hite, chairman of the association's shellfish committee, said. “It used to be done in Maryland, but it fell to the wayside.”

Seeding programs aren't historically unique to the bay, but there are currently none operating in waters near St. Mary's, and haven't been since 2006, Chris Judy, shellfish division manager at DNR, said.

DNR worked with oyster committees in Maryland counties to fund seed areas from 1960 until 2006, buying shells from deposits in the upper bay, deposits that have since been depleted, leading to the end of the program and leaving watermen to buy shell from shucking houses or hatcheries, Judy said.

Hite, who founded the Noble Oyster Alliance, which uses donated money to buy shells to support wild seed production, said money that once went to that program is now fissured among various oyster restoration programs like sanctuaries and hatcheries, rather than to wild oyster recovery.

“We feel like it's gonna be the end of this whole industry, if we don't get our seed areas back,” waterman Wayne Goddard said.

State watermen use money returned to them by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (collected from taxes they get from harvesting) to seed oysters annually throughout the bay, Hite said, but not on a contractual basis. Last year, he estimates he planted $70,000 worth of shell in waters near St. Mary's, he said.

Maryland watermen, including Hite, used to buy seed — or spat-on-shell — from Virginia oyster farmers, before the state banned seed harvesting in the James River and blocked transference of seed oysters out of state.

Old shell can still be bought and transferred from out of state.

The recent closing of the St. Mary's River sanctuary, which was previously opened to watermen for rotational harvest, and where watermen wanted to develop seed areas, also threw a wrench in wild oyster production, Hite said.

“We wanted to take that and share the wealth among the whole bay, not contain it to one area,” Hite said. “But we still feel that this is a good thing.”

Oyster populations are half of what they were in 1999, according to a 2018 report by University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, totaling 300 million last year, after disease, warmer winters and habitat degradation led to sharp declines in their numbers in the mid-1980s. Although, Goddard said, oyster populations have been in flux for centuries, vulnerable to changeable weather conditions. Still, oysters are at less than 1% of their historic total population in the 1700s.

In recent years, environmentalists and watermen have split over best practices to restock bay oysters. Researchers say sanctuaries, hatcheries and aquaculture are the watershed's best bet for restoring oysters, and are exploring alternative means to rebuild oyster bars. Watermen, many whose families have made a living fishing in the bay for centuries, are skeptical about the effectiveness of new restoration practices, and say more investment in rebuilding wild oyster bars is needed, and is more cost effective.

“It's the most inexpensive way to reproduce or to manage the industry, 'cause it’s a mother nature thing,” Goddard said, steering the Poppa Francis, a hand-built vessel crafted by Goddard's father, Francis Goddard, in the style of an early 20th century buy-boat, which Chesapeake Bay watermen used in the oyster industry. It's a breezy Wednesday morning, and the wooden boat rocks back and forth across the swell on the way to Bevans Oyster Company in Kinsale, Va.

“You can dump a million dollars into this thing trying to farm oysters and grow them in hatcheries, and overnight they can die,” Goddard said, referring to morality rates in some hatchery oysters. “Shells are the natural substrate for the oysters to strike on, they're the cheapest to buy to put them back in the water. You take them out, you put them back.”

Goddard, Hite and Chris Withrow were picking up shell for their first haul of the seeding program this week. They are buying 2,600 bushels at $3 a bushel, plus $2 to transport it to an area in St. Mary's River, near Gravelly Run. Their morning run cost them $13,000.

If they were instead to purchase hatchery seed, it would cost around $23 per bushel, Hite said, and buying seed from Virginia (before it was banned) cost them $4 a bushel. Hite estimates the cost of the wild seed produced by their natural seed area will be less than $10 per bushel, he said.

“If this works for this county, then maybe the rest of the counties up the bay that don't have natural [recruitment] would be interested in" starting a seeding program, Hite said. “Whether it be an area here in this river, or other rivers that may work well, too. But I think it's one of the best in Maryland, we got lucky as far as that goes.”

St. Mary's River has higher salinity than the upper bay, which supports oyster growth. Their numbers tend to be higher in lower parts of the bay with higher salinity. Gravelly Run boasted the highest spat strike last year than other areas of the river with minimal mortality despite the rainfall, according to a study by the St. Mary's River Watershed Association.

Shells are dropped in waters and left to their own accord in hopes of forming natural oyster bars. The shells don't require much effort to cultivate, Goddard said, and could be ready for transport to low-recruitment areas of the bay, like the Wicomico River, by next spring.

The shellfish association has a contract to grow the seed area with DNR, in partnership with the Oyster Recovery Partnership. The goal is to manage the area for the next five years — if the shells produce 600 bushels or more of seed by next year, Hite said they will be dispersed across the bay.

This year, Hite said the watermen intend to plant at least 12,000 oyster shells in the seed area.

“If we take oysters, we like to put the shell back to make it work again,” Hite said. “Some of our families have lived off the water here for hundreds of years … we want to help fix it.”

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