When it comes to restoring the Chesapeake Bay’s oysters, size matters. State and federal agencies are pouring tens of millions of dollars collectively into rebuilding and seeding roughly 2,000 acres of once-thriving oyster reefs in 10 Bay tributaries, five each in Maryland and Virginia. It’s ecosystem restoration writ large.

But small can be beautiful, too. Just ask leaders of the Severn River Association.

Emi McGeady, the Severn River Association’s field investigator, holds up an oyster attached to a chunk of granite, evidence that it spawned naturally in the Chesapeaake Bay tributary. (Blue Moon Photography)

The Severn is one of four Maryland rivers that the state Department of Natural Resources has chosen for “small-scale” oyster restoration, with the aim of reseeding one reef at a time. Rather than pledging to spend millions on a wholesale restocking of each river, the state has committed just $250,000 per year for the effort, which includes the Severn, Magothy and South rivers on the Western Shore and the Nanticoke River on the Eastern Shore.

The Severn is the first of the four to get restoration going. And through partnerships and the energetic fundraising of tens of thousands of dollars in private donations, the Severn group has leveraged the limited state funding to plant more than 80 million hatchery-reared juvenile oysters since 2018 on a handful of reefs in the lower river. And to hear them tell it, they’re not done yet; their goal is to have more than a billion oysters helping to clean up the river.

All parties involved see Operation Build-A-Reef, as it’s called, as a model for expanding oyster restoration into other Bay tributaries without a lot of government funding.

“The Severn is a template,” said Chris Judy, the DNR’s shellfish program manager, “for how to work together, get people energized and get things done.”

The Severn once had plenty of oysters. Surveys in the early 1900s identified a total of 27 productive reefs in the river. The McNasby Oyster Co., founded in Annapolis in 1886, shucked the local harvest and for much of the 20th century shipped its “Pearl” brand canned oysters to customers across the United States.

But the state started closing some oyster reefs in the river in 1912 because of sewage problems, and harvests dwindled as development spread throughout the watershed and water quality further declined. In 1998, the state Department of the Environment extended the closure to most of the river, citing the threat of bacterial contamination. Finally, in 2010, the state declared the entire river a sanctuary, off-limits to harvest. Today, McNasby’s oysters are history, featured only in an exhibit at the Annapolis Maritime Museum — which occupies the McNasby building at the mouth of Back Creek.

Oyster warriors

By 2010, a growing number of Severn waterfront homeowners had joined the DNR’s Marylanders Grow Oysters program, a voluntary effort to raise oysters in cages from piers for planting in sanctuaries around the Bay. With Severn River Association stalwarts Bob Whitcomb and Ted Delaplaine at the helm, the group recruited an army of oyster gardeners, more than for any other tributary in the state.

“We’ve got 400 people caring about the quality of their water,” Whitcomb said. He credited the Chesapeake Bay Foundation with getting him and many others started in oyster gardening.

The Robert Lee, the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s vessel, deposits spat on shell in Maryland’s Severn River over Traces Hollow reef. (Blue Moon Photography)

But Severn advocates wanted to go further, to see their river brimming with bivalves again, because the filter-feeding shellfish can help improve water quality and provide reef habitat for fish and crabs.

So when Maryland joined Virginia in 2014 to pledge large-scale oyster restoration in five Bay tributaries in each state, Severn advocates lobbied to get their river included. At a 2017 meeting of the DNR’s Oyster Advisory Commission, Whitcomb cited the success of the oyster gardening corps and suggested that the water quality for growing — if not eating — oysters were improving. Also, he noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2009 had created about 13 acres of artificial reefs near Annapolis, using concrete, steel slag, and stone. The Bay Foundation had also done some smaller-scale reef enhancement in the river. It wouldn’t take much to get the Severn’s oysters fully restored, he argued.

But the DNR passed it over, choosing the St. Mary’s and Manokin rivers in addition to Harris Creek and the Little Choptank and Tred Avon rivers.

Judy, the DNR shellfish manager, said the salinity in the Severn was sufficient in places for oysters to survive, but generally too low for them to reproduce successfully.

“Certainly, you can stock the Severn with oysters, and they’ll grow wonderfully, but will they over the long haul sustain themselves?’’ Judy said.

Another concern, he said, was that reseeding the river might attract poachers, who’d then sell potentially contaminated shellfish, putting unwitting consumers at risk of illness and even death.

At the time, though, the DNR announced that it intended to develop restoration plans for other sanctuaries, including the Severn, that had not been picked for large-scale projects.

But with the lion’s share of state and federal money for oyster restoration being poured into the large-scale projects, it wasn’t clear how much or how quickly work would proceed.

Leaders of the Severn River Association refused to be deterred. They had a legacy to live up to. The association was founded in 1911, the first in the nation formed solely to preserve a river. And it had grown to become one of the largest civic groups in the mostly suburban county.

“I started thinking, ‘Why couldn’t private people do this if the government won’t?’” Whitcomb recalled.

Private donations make a difference

Convinced their members would step up, the association worked with the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership to launch Operation Build-A-Reef to raise private funds for the effort.

The DNR put up a little money to help pay for the first planting in 2018. But the groups raised about $20,000 on their own to augment that and planted 45 million spat on shells between the US 50 and Route 450 bridges. Delaplaine and Whitcomb helped round up donations from well-heeled waterfront residents and were themselves, major donors, to the campaign.

“Part of how you do this is you motivate by leadership,” Whitcomb said. “In the fundraising world, that’s called write out the big check.”

The oyster restoration took a break in 2019 because heavy rains the preceding year had reduced salinities and caused production problems at the Horn Point hatchery of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Last year, there was another hitch: The coronavirus pandemic handicapped the effort by delaying hatchery operations. But they still managed to get 16.9 million spat to plant on reefs between the bridges.

The fundraising proceeded without a hitch, raising $38,000 and far surpassing their goal for the year. Some came from individuals, but other big checks came from corporations. The Oyster Recovery Partnership also chipped in about $10,000 that it had raised through a Bay paddle fundraiser.

So, on a rainy mid-August day that cleared up just in time, the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s vessel, the Robert Lee, ferried 24 million spat from the Horn Point hatchery across the Bay to the Severn. Association leaders aboard pleasure craft celebrated with champagne toasts as a high-pressure hose washed the mound of shells overboard.

Though 24 million spat seems like a lot, the large-scale projects are getting far more. Harris Creek on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for instance, was seeded with more than 2 billion spat on shells. But advocates say the Severn effort is no less notable for what it has accomplished so far.

“What the Oyster Recovery Partnership and Severn River Association have done with the Severn, they have shown there is a way to do this in a sizable way,” said Allison Colden, the Bay Foundation’s Maryland fisheries scientist.

“It’s been a successful project for bringing in that additional private interest and funds to support the oyster restoration,” said Ward Slacum, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. “I see that as a model we can use to try and amplify our restoration efforts in other tributaries that aren’t the focus of federal and state funding.”

The DNR had planned to plant spat in the Nanticoke this year but had to postpone the work, Judy said. Plans have been drawn up for the Magothy and South rivers as well.

But will they spawn?

The oysters planted in the Severn so far are surviving and growing, despite at-times challenging conditions. Oxygen levels in parts of the river can drop low enough in warm months to stress oysters, and the record rainfall from 2018 into 2019 pushed salinity to perilously low levels. A survey found anywhere from 5–20% of the youngest oysters had died, which was about the same mortality rate seen in the large-scale restoration sites, Slacum said.

Severn River Association executive director Tom Guay celebrates the August planting of 24 million spat on shell. “If we can get enough oysters in this river, when the moon is right … the oysters are going to get frisky and we’ll have a reproductive event. We’ll double the size of our oyster population naturally.” (Blue Moon Photography)

The bigger question is, will those hatchery oysters go on to produce their own young? This year, according to Tom Guay, executive director of the Severn River Association, the group’s field investigator did some diving to check on the plantings in the river just across from the mouth of Weems Creek and came up with an oyster that had attached itself to a piece of the granite that the Army Corps had placed there more than a decade ago. That, Guay said, was evidence of natural reproduction.

“If we can get enough oysters in this river, one day, when the moon is right and the candlelight is right, the oysters are going to get frisky and we’ll have a reproductive event,” he said. “We’ll double the size of our oyster population naturally.”

That’s a dream that also intrigues the DNR’s Judy. The Severn is one of several Bay tributaries — the Chester River is another — that once yielded significant oyster harvests but where conditions are now marginal at best. The water’s salinity is generally below the level that is ideal for oyster reproduction, and many of the reefs that once brimmed with oysters are buried under a thick layer of silt.

“Just think if over the years the Severn broodstock is enhanced enough,” Judy said, “…and if there’s a natural increase in spat set … that would demonstrate you can take a marginal river and change its course.” It’s unclear if that would be possible, given how the river has changed with development throughout its watershed.

But to do much more on the Severn, more reefs would have to be rebuilt. The DNR says bottom surveys indicate that of the 1,000-plus acres of historic oyster habitat in the river, there are just six reefs left with about 40 acres suitable for juvenile oysters to settle and grow uninhibited by the silt covering the rest of the bottom.

Building new reefs, whether with rocks or some type of shell, is running about $110,000 per acre in the large-scale projects, Judy said. That’s a hefty price tag, given what Operation Build-A-Reef has been able to raise so far.

Ted Delaplaine, the co-chair of the association’s oyster gardening effort, is undaunted. He rattled off the names of a few wealthy celebrities with waterfront mansions there.

“There are some deep pockets on the Severn River,” he said. “We just haven’t met them yet.’’

Meanwhile, to Guay and other Severn advocates, the effort to date, small though it is, is already a success.

“As long as [the oysters] live, then they’ll be cleaning the river,” Guay said. “Our first goal is to clean the river, and hopefully they’re going to reproduce.”

This article was originally published in BayJournal.com on Monday, November 15, 2021.

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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