Some don't see pearls in oyster plan

OUTDOORS

October 19, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

A friend who works on the Chesapeake Bay once said in jest that the sooner we catch the last of the blue crabs and oysters, the sooner we can get to work on the restoration plans.

His point was that extinction clears the slate and focuses attention a whole lot more than the mere threat of extinction.

With both crabs and oysters, well-meaning folks get so tangled up in how many critters remain and who's catching what and where that the actual crisis rolls on unscathed.

One of those clashes will occur in Chestertown Wednesday night, when the Department of Natural Resources will defend its plan to open two new oyster shell dredging areas off the Eastern Shore. Ten million bushels of recovered shells would be used to create nurseries for baby oysters.

The state says it needs the new sites because shell supplies off Tolchester Beach and Fairlee Creek are running low after two decades of mining. Biologists have their eyes on a new cache off Worton Point and Plum Point.

Sounds like recycling at its best, right?

Not as far as the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland is concerned. CCA says mining those new spots could threaten the nurseries of other bay babies -- striped bass, shad and short nose sturgeon.

No one questions that a healthy oyster population helps make a healthy bay. One oyster can filter 50 gallons of water daily.

But CCA is worried that the push to save the oysters might compromise the tremendous effort to revive a striper population that almost disappeared.

Just recently the state reported that despite growing dead spots, algae blooms and other environmental insults, the bay this year cranked out baby striped bass at near-record levels.

From July through September, biologists surveyed 22 sites in the four major spawning systems: the Choptank, Potomac and Nanticoke rivers and the upper bay. They collected 3,399 young-of-year stripers for a juvenile index of 25.8, the fifth highest ever measured in nearly a half-century of record keeping. The long-term average is 11.9.

The upper bay index was the highest since 1970. Reproduction in the Potomac and Choptank rivers was more than double their historic average. Reproduction in the Nanticoke River was slightly above average.

The numbers for other species in the upper bay were equally bright. American shad showed a reproduction surge for the fourth consecutive year, and white perch and yellow perch also had highly successful spawns.

So, CCA asks, why risk the striper turnaround -- which required a five-year moratorium -- to gamble on a dredging program that, by comparison, hasn't accomplished much in 40 years except to perpetuate itself?

The answer may be that DNR isn't gambling much at all.

A map of upper bay striped bass spawning areas from 1990 to '99 prepared by DNR shows the largest number of females congregate north of a line that stretches from Taylor Island on the western shore to Howell Point on the eastern side. Worton Point and Plum Point are south of the line.

Timing might work in DNR's favor as well. Dredging occurs from June to September, well away from the spring spawning period.

But, as CCA executive director Robert Glenn cautions, opening new dredging areas sets a dangerous precedent.

"What happens when they need more shells? If they can dredge here, what's to keep them from dredging elsewhere?" he asks.

Good question in light of a June 2002 meeting of the two committees that advise the governor on sportfishing and tidal fishing issues.

Biologists with the Oyster Restoration Program told committee members that Plum and Worton were just two of the potential sites. Shell supplies at Man O' War Shoal at the mouth of the Patapsco River and Shad Battery Shoal, which is adjacent to the prime striper spawning area, also were among the possibilities.

However, Chris Judy, DNR's oyster guru, says other areas "fell off the list because they had fatal flaws. They either didn't have high-quality shells or they were opposed by the members of our advisory group."

Judy says the history of dredging in the upper bay does not indicate any conflict between shell scooping and fish spawning.

"In fact, the striped bass came back during the dredging program," he says.

If approved by the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of the Environment, the dredging permit would allow the removal of 10 million bushels of shells between next summer and December 2008.

Before that's allowed to happen, CCA wants a detailed environmental assessment of the two proposed sites. It also wants to know why more manmade materials, such as concrete construction debris, can't be used to make reefs.

"I can see both sides of this issue. But we think our position is reasonable," says Glenn, whose organization represents recreational saltwater anglers.

Their requests are certainly worth considering.

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