CAMBRIDGE — Lumps of hardened, sandy clay, some shaped as if they might contain a small oyster shell, are being placed in the Little Choptank River to expand existing natural oyster bars.
The lumps of clay were the stars of a press conference held here Sunday before the start of a crab feast fundraiser for State Sen. Richard Colburn. Among those speaking against the use of this material to expand oyster bars were Eastern Shore representatives State Sen. Stephen Hershey (R-Upper Shore), and delegates Mike McDermott (R-Worcester) and Charles Otto (R-Wicomico).
Maryland Watermen’s Association President Robert Brown held a small tray of the clay lumps as he explained that Monday the MWA will be taking the matter of “illegal dumping” in the Little Choptank to the Maryland Department of the Environment in an effort to stop the fossil oyster shell from being placed in the Little Choptank.
“We hope we can stop it,” Brown said.
The material was purchased by the state from Gulf Coast Aggregates near Carrabelle, Fla., according to a Maryland Department of Natural Resources press release heralding the recent placement of 2,750 tons of fossilized oyster shell in Harris Creek, off the Choptank River, the first of 112,500 tons of the fossilized shell to be used for reef restoration in Harris Creek and the Little Choptank.
Both areas, in Harris Creek and the Little Choptank, have been declared sanctuaries by the DNR, where the harvest of oysters is prohibited.
When the operation moved to the Little Choptank last week, Dorchester watermen organized a protest around the barge Thursday morning, shutting down work on the project for the rest of that day. Two Natural Resources Police vessels were patrolling around the barge as work continued Friday, with a crane placing the material in the river.
Brown said he grows oysters in St. Mary’s County and would never use the fossil shell material in his aquaculture operation. He said there is “no way oysters can hit on this stuff.”
There is also concern the fossil shell will deter crabbing in the Little Choptank, causing damage to trotlines, which it may do, according to information on the DNR website about what it calls the Little Choptank River Oyster Restoration project. Watermen also say the material will not be a good environment for other marine life which brings crabs to oyster bars to feed.
The fossil shell is being placed legally in the Little Choptank River, according to DNR Director of Fisheries Resources Tom O’Connell, who said the project in the Little Choptank is working on a permit obtained in 2008. “We believe that what we are doing is covered by our permit,” O’Connell said.
“We inspect every load,” O’Connell said of the fossil shell being sent to Harris Creek and the Little Choptank (and, as the project expands, to the Tred Avon).
Colburn has sent a letter to Maryland DNR Secretary Joe Gill, asking that plans for the Little Choptank Oyster Restoration project be reconsidered.
The Dorchester County Council has issued a statement opposing the placement of fossil shell in the Little Choptank, an area which is known as one of the most productive areas for natural oyster spat production in Chesapeake Bay.
The county council has agreed to join the Dorchester Seafood Harvesters Association in seeking a court injunction to stop the placement of fossil shell material in the Little Choptank. Dorchester Councilman Tom Bradshaw said Sunday the county has already filed a request through the Freedom of Information Act seeking a copy of the permit for the project.
The Dorchester Seafood Harvesters Association met Sunday evening to consider ways to raise funds for its share of legal fees.
Dorchester County is also seeking coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Little Choptank project, Bradshaw said. Coordination is a stipulation of the National Environmental Policy Act, which is enforced by the federal Council on Environmental Quality. If agencies fail to work with local government and consider the impacts regulations create for humans, suit will be filed in federal court seeking to force coordination.
During Sunday’s press conference, Colburn said, “I stand with the seafood industry and the watermen on their strong opposition of the placement of this shell in Maryland waters.
“The Department of Natural Resources for years has opposed putting the ariakensis oyster in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries because it is a ‘non-native oyster.’ However, the department has no issue with placing a Florida clay-laden fossil shell in the Little Choptank ...
“Maryland watermen have not had the chance to publicly voice their opposition to this plan. They deserve the chance to go on record as to why they are so adamantly opposed to the department’s latest ill-advised plan.
“I can only assume the department’s determination in moving forward with placing the shell is due in part to the fact the department has already purchased the shell and nobody wants it.”