BALTIMORE (Sept. 28, 2020) – The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has reclassified waterways in Dorchester and St. Mary’s counties for shellfish harvesting.

The portion of the Little Choptank River formed by the confluence of Gary and Lee creeks and the Woolford Creek portion of the river, totaling about 305 acres, are being reclassified from conditionally approved to restricted for shellfish harvesting. In areas that are conditionally approved, oysters and clams can be harvested at any time with the exception of any rain event of one inch or more, which requires that an affected area be closed for three days and then reopened unless another rain event occurred during that time. Restricted means that no direct harvest of oysters or clams is permitted.

The Island Creek portion of the St. Mary’s River, covering about 54 acres, is being reclassified from approved to restricted for shellfish harvesting.

All reclassifications are effective Sept. 28.

The reclassification in the Little Choptank River does not change the Department of Natural Resources designation of the entire river, including these creeks, as an oyster sanctuary where the wild harvest of oysters is prohibited. There are three oyster leases, all in the confluence of Gary and Lee creeks, totaling about 38 acres affected by the reclassification. One oyster lease, covering two acres, is affected by the reclassification in Island Creek.

MDE reached out to the lease holders prior to the reclassifications. Lease holders can obtain a relay permit under which shellfish can be harvested from closed areas if the oysters are moved, or relayed, to another lease in approved waters to ensure that the oysters naturally cleanse themselves so they can be harvested and sold to consumers. The lease holders in Gray and Lee creeks also have leases in approved waters for relay.

The reclassifications are due to recent evaluations of bacteria levels in portions of the waterways. MDE conducts regular surveys to identify potential pollution sources near shellfish harvesting waters, but the cause of an increase in bacteria levels is not always known and no specific cause has been identified for the increased levels in this area.

Shellfish are filter feeders with the ability to filter water and get food from microscopic organisms in the water. If the waters are polluted, this filtering process can concentrate disease-causing organisms associated with raw sewage and other sources, such as animal waste. Oysters and clams are often eaten raw or partially cooked and must come from waters that are not polluted.

MDE monitors bacteriological water quality and conducts pollution source surveys to determine which areas are safe for the harvesting of shellfish. The department is required to close areas that do not meet the strict water quality standards for shellfish harvesting waters and it has a longstanding policy to reopen areas to shellfish harvesting when water quality improves. These actions are necessary to protect public health by preventing harvest from the areas impacted and ensure Maryland remains in compliance with the National Shellfish Sanitation Program.

Information on shellfish harvesting areas is available on MDE’s website. These designations apply only to the harvesting of shellfish (oysters and clams); they do not apply to fishing or crabbing. Consumption advisories for recreationally caught fish and crabs can also be found on the department’s website.

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