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By: Timothy B. Wheeler, BayJournal.com

The coronavirus pandemic is delaying oyster restoration efforts in Maryland this spring but so far has not impacted projects planned in Virginia later this summer.

In Maryland, plans to start placing hatchery-reared oyster spat in early April in the Little Choptank River have been held up, said Ward Slacum, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

Stephanie Alexander stands on a mountain of bagged oyster shells in one of the large tanks used to connect oyster larva to shell at Horn Point Laboratory on Maryland’s Choptank River. Dave Harp

The nonprofit partnership is hoping to “seed” 7 acres of bottom in the Little Choptank with juvenile oysters that have been induced to settle and grow on old oyster shells.

Maryland and Virginia have pledged to restore oyster habitat and populations by 2025 in five Bay tributaries in each state. That work has been completed in only two so far — Harris Creek in Maryland and the Lafayette River in Virginia.

The plantings scheduled this spring in the Little Choptank would effectively complete restoration in that Eastern Shore tributary, ending a six-year project that’s supposed to restore abundant bivalve populations on about 350 acres of bottom.

But the work can’t proceed right now because of the public health restrictions imposed to fight the spread of COVID-19, Slacum said. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ordered all nonessential businesses to close on March 23 and issued a stay-at-home order the next week.

Brood stock oysters are placed in a large sink for spawning at the Horn Point Laboratory in Maryland. Dave Harp

Juvenile oyster plantings are also planned this spring or summer in the St. Mary’s and Manokin rivers, two other Bay tributaries in Maryland that are targeted for large-scale reef restoration. But Slacum said everything is on “pause” until the state-imposed restrictions to deal with COVID-19 are eased.

“We’re ready,” he said. “It will literally be a matter of flipping the switch and getting going.”

The partnership supplies shell to the Horn Point hatchery in Cambridge operated by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. The hatchery seeds the shell with baby oysters, then the partnership arranges to transport them by boat to the designated restoration sites for putting overboard.

But with the timetable for those projects now uncertain, the state’s largest hatchery has scaled back its operation.

“As of right now, restoration is kind of on hold,” said Stephanie Alexander, the hatchery manager.

The hatchery is still producing oyster larvae for sale to aquaculture operations, but Alexander said she’s held off setting spat on shell for use in restoration projects. As a result, the facility is only running at about 40% capacity, she said.

The state Department of Natural Resources, which is in charge of restoration work in the Little Choptank, St. Mary’s and Manokin, joined with other project partners in deciding to hold off for now, said spokesman Gregg Bortz.

“The restoration work requires large groups of people working in close proximity in the lab and in boats on the water, making it a risk for our staff and theirs,” he said. ”We will resume activities as soon as safely possible once the state of emergency is lifted. Sanctuary planning work is continuing, as that can be accomplished through teleworking.”

Alexander said the hiccup in restoration work this year is frustrating, though, because the hatchery was hoping to rebound from problems last year that severely limited its production of baby oysters. One of the largest hatcheries on the East Coast, it cranked out 1.8 billion spat in both 2016 and 2017. But persistently low-salinity levels in the Choptank River last year, caused by prolonged heavy rains, cut the hatchery’s output to about 10% of its normal yield.

“We’ve got a lot to make up for,” Alexander said. “We were really kind of hoping this was going to be a normal season.”

The hatchery began preparing its brood stock in January to be ready to spawn come springtime. Normally by this time of year, Alexander said, the hatchery would be going full bore. But with COVID-19 prompting staff cutbacks and restoration delays, Alexander said the facility has been “pumping the brakes” to slow down the reproduction process by maintaining its brood stock but not allowing them to spawn too much.

A water canon shoots spat-on-shell oysters from the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory onto the Tred Avon River sanctuary from an Oyster Recovery Partnership boat in 2018. Dave Harp

If the restoration holdup is relatively brief, Alexander said the hatchery can probably ramp up without problems. But if the delay is prolonged, she said, the broodstock oysters may shift out of spawning condition, hampering production.

Oyster restoration hasn’t been formally delayed in Virginia, but there’s uncertainty about when it can begin. A 12-acre project in the western branch of the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach was to begin this spring, building reefs of crushed concrete covered by a layer of oyster shells. But the two nonprofits partnering on the effort — Lynnhaven River Now and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation — still need to get a permit to proceed from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. The commission canceled its March meeting because of the coronavirus and plans to meet only briefly in late April to deal with an unrelated matter.

“We are still hopeful that we can build later this spring or this summer,” said Karen Forget, Lynnhaven River Now’s executive director, “but we are waiting to see what happens.”

State and federal officials aiming to do restoration projects later in the year say they’re hopeful the coronavirus will ease up enough to allow them to go forward.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has plans to build about 33 acres of oyster reefs in the Piankatank River, one of five Bay tributaries the state has designated for large-scale restoration efforts. The commission also intends to do a much smaller project in the Elizabeth River in the Portsmouth area.

“It is our intent to do a lot of that work this summer,” said Ellen Bolen, deputy VMRC commissioner. But she said commission staff won’t know for sure until maybe six weeks from now if it can start as planned.

The Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to issue a contract this year to build about 40 acres of reef in Maryland’s Tred Avon River. That is the last phase of a restoration project begun there in 2015 but repeatedly delayed by lack of funding and complaints from watermen, which has since been resolved.

The agency still hopes to get the work under way sometime in the upcoming winter, said the Corps’ Angie Sowers. But pre-contract surveys of the restoration area with local watermen, she said, have been put on hold because of the coronavirus travel restrictions. That may delay the contract award some, she said.

The Corps’ Norfolk District plans to award a contract this summer to build 8 acres of reefs in the Lynnhaven River as part of a broader ecosystem restoration project there.

“We are still on track with that and have not seen any COVID-related impacts,” said Susan Layton, chief of policy and planning for the Norfolk District.

Stephanie Westby, oyster restoration program director for the Bay office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that work in Maryland seems most affected right now by the coronavirus restrictions, while the later planned work in Virginia seems mostly untouched so far.

But, she added in an email, “Things seem to be changing rapidly, as is the case everywhere, so all this could change (or may have changed).”

While some restoration projects are on hold, plans to replenish oyster reefs that have been harvested are going ahead.

In Maryland, groups of watermen in each Bay-shore county will be planting spat-on-shell acquired from private hatcheries, as is done every year, said Robert T. Brown, Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. Some areas with good natural reproduction will get plantings instead of shell acquired from Virginia oyster-packing houses. The work can be done safely without much risk of spreading COVID-19, he said.

“It’s not hard to keep your 6-foot distance when you’re in the river,” he said. “Most of the boats don’t have more than three people on them anyhow.”

In Virginia, shell plantings to replenish reefs on public harvest grounds also are expected to go ahead as planned, said Ellen Bolen, deputy VMRC commissioner.


David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...