Letter to Editor: Sanctuaries are not Working, Why Make Them Permanent?


I am writing this letter in response to Matt Pluta’s Letter to the Editor. First, I want to thank the Talbot County Council for their support. It is a comfort to know that in our time of need they take action. When 50% of Talbot & Dorchester County’s productive oyster bars were taken to create 3 tributary size sanctuaries our counties experienced a great loss economically, socially, and, yes, environmentally. As president of Talbot Watermen’s Association, member of Oyster Advisory Commission, member of Oyster Futures, Chairperson of the Talbot County Oyster Shell Committee, and past member of Choptank Trib Team (now known as ShoreRivers). I would like to share some of the scientific data that shows that Harris Creek Sanctuary is not performing as well as Public Oyster Harvest Areas and why sanctuaries success is still unproven.

Since I live on Tilghman, I have watched every phase of the reef construction in Harris Creek including many years of the planting of Spat on Shell (SOS) until its supposed completion in 2016. I say supposed because, in 2017, I started to see more plantings of SOS, and a total of 31 of the 64 reefs were replanted. See attached Harris Creek Reseeded in 2017.

At an Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) meeting, I brought up the question of why a project that was announced to be completed the year before would need such extensive reseeding. The response was that the sanctuary restoration plan allowed for additional plantings if bars did not meet certain metrics. In other words, as the oysters die from disease or old age, new oysters are planted at taxpayer’s expense. How convenient that the plan was written with safeguards so that it would not fail! I thought that, once completed, the reefs would sustain themselves through natural reproduction and, according to the disproven computer model created by UMCES, this spat would spread outside of Harris Creek to harvest areas.

Low spatfall is another factor. Spatfall is clearly not occurring as evidence from the current 2017 Fall Survey (a survey of oyster bars done around the state for the past 60 years by the DNR). See Table 2 – Spat pg. 32. In Harris Creek, the number of spat per bushel is 55, slightly above the 33 year average 40.3 (see notation #1), but just outside of Harris creek the number per bushel is only 13 which is a lot lower than that bars 33 year average of 67.2 (see notation #2). Also noted is that both spat counts are well below that of Broad Creek which is 205 per bushel, almost double the 33 year average of 118.1 (notation #3), and let’s remember this is a creek that we harvest and have not planted over 2 billion SOS and spent 32 million dollar in taxpayer’s money.

As for the next computer model created by VIMS and UMCES mentioned by Mr. Pluta that shows the filtering capacity of Harris Creek and the removal of nitrogen of 100,000 pounds of nitrogen is a theory not real data. Lisa Kellogg of VIMS clearly states, “Through the model she and her colleagues hope to provide a tool that natural resource agencies could use to gauge the ecological benefits of this and other reef restoration projects”. Where can you find water testing data? I know ShoreRivers does water testing in Harris Creek. On ShoreRivers website, I found data showing nitrogen levels; the data shows Harris Creek was actually going backwards with nitrogen levels rising from .47 in 2013 to .958 in 2014  (see attached HC05), with overall numbers increasing.

Broad Creek, a public harvest area, during those same years was declining in nitrogen levels to .114 (see attached BC04).

Also of importance are high disease levels in restoration sanctuaries. Harris Creek, Tred Avon and Little Choptank River have 97% prevalence of Dermo and the intensity ranges from 3.3 to 4.1 resulting in death of the oyster when this range reaches 5. When oysters die, they re-release nitrogen back into the water. See Table A. Disease Levels at Three Restoration Sanctuaries and Adjacent Open-Harvest Areas from the 2017 Fall Survey.

On Tilghman Wharf, a public oyster bar outside of Harris Creek Sanctuary, had a 10% prevalence of Dermo and the intensity range was 0.2 in 2013 but by 2017 (when the sanctuary was well established), the prevalence rose to 70 with an intensity of 2.2 as the disease spreads to public oyster bar just outside the sanctuary area. See Table 3 – Dermo.

And finally, the Morgan State study (I actually participated in this study as a member of the Oyster Futures project) about increase in crab harvest to offset the economic loss of the oyster harvest. The theory is crabs will feed on the barnacles of the reef.  However, what about when the crab defecates (feces are high in nitrogen) after feeding? When I asked the scientist this question, he seemed perplexed and had not considered the impact. Second, our trotlines get snagged on the stone piles of the reef, so, not many watermen will crab on them. This combined with the loss of crab lays due to aquaculture water column leasing allowed in sanctuaries (i.e., Phillips Wharf Environmental Center and Green Pearl, LLC. leases on Lomax oyster bar in Harris Creek Sanctuary) creates a significant decrease in crab harvest.  And, lastly, what Mr. Pluta and others have failed to report is this study concluded the overall increase to the oyster population would not be significant at all.

So, my question to the citizens of Maryland, after reviewing all this data which proves that sanctuaries are not working, why would we make them permanent?

Jeff Harrison, President
Talbot Watermen Association


Letters to Editor

  1. As usual, Jeff Harrison has done the homework and brought the bulk of the information together, and it makes the states project look like a failure. Seems that most of what the Watermen said would happen has happened. Lack of propagation on the man made reefs, higher nitrogen rates then the “science” suggested there would be. An environment created that can not be crabbed. And the Watermens opinion was never really taken to heart. They are out there every day and have been for over a century. Yet their opinion carries little weight. It is a shame. And so is what the state has allowed this so called science to do to the three major bars, the Watermen and their families, and our faith in any other projects they (the state) try to sell us in the name of that science.

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