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Are We Performing an Oyster Miracle?

Bay Weekly reports on how restoration is working

If native oysters rebound in the Chesapeake, it will be a miracle. But not a mystery. A clear chain of cause and effect will have led the way.
    First came the will, then the way.
    Over 30 years — even a century, it could be argued — plenty was going on to restore Chesapeake oysters. For all that was tried, nothing worked — or worked on a big enough scale to fight off the forces working against the native oyster, Crassostrea virginica.
    Hopes were high, results scarce.
    Yet will was gathering.
    Five years ago, an Oyster Advisory Commission convened by Gov. Martin O’Malley got to the bottom of the problem: The few oysters left couldn’t support themselves and an oyster economy. Bad news.
    Yet that bad news may be turning into good news.
    Maryland decided to go all out for oysters, with money and resources. The state’s Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan laid out a 10-point strategy.
    In Washington, at about the same time, President Barack Obama made Chesapeake restoration an executive priority. The feds laid down the standards and promised funding. States had to come up with the plans.
    That was 2009 and 2010.
    Now Maryland’s Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan is firing on all cylinders. Federal agencies, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, big independent players like Chesapeake Bay Foundation, civic groups and lots of everyday people — from waterfront homeowners to school kids — are all traveling down the restoration road.
    For the past two years, the General Assembly has topped DNR’s $2 million annual appropriation with almost $8 million for oyster restoration in two tributaries, Harris Creek and the Little Choptank River. That’s the starting point. Ten tributaries restored by 2025 is the latest Chesapeake Bay Agreement goal.
    At least two federal agencies, NOAA and the Army Corps of Engineers, do their own big spending to restore oysters in the Bay. The Corps’ annual budget, for ­example, is roundly $2 million.
    That’s some of the investment on three of the points of the 10-point plan:
1. Focus on targeted restoration strategies to achieve ecological and economic goals
2. Expand the sanctuary program
5. Rehabilitate oyster bar habitat
    Four years in, there’s plenty to report in terms of work done — and some successes achieved.
    Will it work to restore native oysters?
    “It is working on a small scale right now,” says DNR’s Eric Weissberger. “Will we see take-off on a larger scale, reaching a tipping point where it takes off on its own? It’s way too early to tell.”
    Starting next year, a new Republican governor will set his own course. A look back at Robert Ehrlich’s four years, 2001 through 2004 — when planting alien Asian oysters in the Bay seemed the last, best solution — reminds us just how different that could be.
    Will we keep it up?
    First comes the will, then the way.
    Read on for the first Bay Weekly report on what we’re doing to restore oysters and how it’s working.
    Writer Bob Melamud starts from the bottom up with shell, reporting on oyster recycling and revisiting the Harris Creek Oyster Sanctuary.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com