It takes a village of vessels to build an oyster reef.
Two barges do the heavy work. One, the construction barge, bears a GPS-guided crane. That barge is anchored to stay a while in Harris Creek, just beyond Knapps Narrows on the Eastern Shore. Another barge holds tons of fossilized oyster shells awaiting the crane. That barge travels back and forth to Curtis Bay, on the south side of Baltimore Harbor, where it meets a freight train of hopper cars full of more fossilized Florida oyster shells.
A tugboat, the Georgetown, pushes the shell barge up to the crane barge and lashes them together until the shell barge is empty.
A shuttle boat, the Christi, brings the crew to the job from Tilghman Island. They go back and forth every day. This cold early morning, I’m riding with them.
I’m getting a first-hand look at one of Maryland’s most important environmental projects: the restoration of Chesapeake Bay oysters. Oysters are the building block of the Bay’s economic and ecological health. To raise oysters, you have to have shell. The commodity is at such a premium that Maryland has turned to Florida.
When the boats have done their work and everything is in place, the crane swings over the shells, picks up a load and, under GPS guidance, drops it exactly where it needs to be for this reef to rise.
It takes a lot of work to build a reef. What I want to know is will it work?
And you should want to know, too. Afterall, you and I are paying for it.
Maryland’s $6.3 Million Import
The Bayward journey of this fossilized shell starts with an explosion in a quarry in the panhandle of Florida. After sitting there for millions of years, it’s become a natural resource, worth moving 1,000 miles by railway, then by barge from Baltimore. A total of 112,000 tons of fossilized shell — $6.3 million worth of raw material — will be procured, shipped and placed now through September.
The full cost is bigger still, but we taxpayers are saved $2.4 million by CSX Rail, which is carrying the shells from Florida at cost. “The restoration of the Chesapeake Bay oyster beds is critical for this region’s environment and economy,” said CSX CEO Michael Ward.
All this expense and trouble to replace a material that used to be so cheap and locally plentiful we used it to pave our driveways. Traditionally, oyster shell has been collected from packing houses and restaurants or dug from thick layers on the bottom of the Bay. But as the oyster population in the Bay has dropped lower than ever in history, there just isn’t enough shell to rebuild the reefs and sustain the cycle. Florida has plenty.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources is leading the oyster restoration effort, working with the National Fish and Wildlife Service, the Oyster Recovery Partnership, NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Environmental Services and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science at Horn Point.
Baby oysters are raised at Horn Point and carried as spat to new reefs by the Oyster Recovery Partnership. The Maryland Environmental Service watches over the work as, splash by splash, the crane drops 10-ton loads of shell into the Bay.
Will It Work?
Millions of dollars are being invested while the clock is ticking to get the oyster population restored and the Bay back to health.
Will it work?
Maryland Department of Natural Resources has done its homework to ensure our money is well spent. The use of fossilized shells is new in Maryland, but Florida has been doing it since 2007. “It works,” reports Joseph Shields, a marine biologist with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “The state of Florida has been doing oyster reef restoration for over 100 years; we’re now using the fossilized shells.”
Both states have done extensive chemical analysis of the fossilized shell. The results verify that, despite their age, fossilized shells are essentially chemically identical to fresh shells.
Biologist Russell Burke of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, has gone further in a study for the Army Corps of Engineers. His work demonstrated that in many circumstances the fossilized shell is better than fresh shell. Oyster larvae are not the only organisms in the water that like to grow on hard surfaces. “Fresh shell reefs have a higher chance of being fouled by barnacles and other organisms before the oyster spat can set,” Burke reports. For reasons not fully understood, barnacles are less attracted to fossilized shell, so the oyster spat has a better chance of attaching and thriving.
So the theory is good.
In practice, when will we know whether fossilized oyster shell is helping bring back the Bay?
Success will be in the eye of the beholder. Politicians and various stakeholders will put their slant on the results. But the scientific community has defined strict techniques to measure progress.
By the end of this year, researchers should be able to count young oysters growing on the new reefs. Each year should bring a larger oyster population to the Harris Creek sanctuary.
“By fall we’ll have indications of the success of these new reefs versus those constructed with more traditional materials,” Mike Naylor, the DNR Shellfish Program director, told Bay Weekly.
That would be good news, but not a definitive answer.
“It will take many years to verify a sustained, self-supporting population. Unfortunately, our results are underwater, making it more expensive and more time-consuming to measure our progress,” Naylor explained.
The ultimate goal is for restored oyster populations to thrive in 20 Bay tributaries by 2025.
Later this year, DNR and its partners will make a decision on the next purchase of fossilized shell. That decision will be based on the results of this year’s work and, of course, the availability of funding.
Am I Sold?
As I reflect on that cold morning when I watched the last stage of the process — a reef rising in the middle of Harris Creek — I realize I am a stakeholder, too. I’m a fisherman, a Bay lover and a taxpayer. Like everyone else, I dislike paying taxes. But I dislike it less if I feel my money is being used
properly for purposes I believe in.
Is importing oyster shell necessary? Local efforts by the Oyster Recovery Partnership to collect used shell helps, but more is needed. The 1,200 tons of shell recycled over the last few years won’t approach the tonnage the job will take.
So spending money on fossilized shell is a reasonable approach to the unequivocally necessary task of restoring our oyster population — and the health of the Bay.