Oysters form on reef balls in the St. Marys River sanctuary

Study finds Maryland oyster sanctuaries likely to boost crab, perch fisheries

Timothy B. Wheeler, BayJournal.com

The restoration of reefs in Maryland oyster sanctuaries may be unpopular with watermen, but a recent study predicts the effort will eventually yield a bonanza for the commercial seafood industry, with bigger harvests of blue crabs and white perch.

While oyster harvesting is prohibited in the Maryland sanctuaries where restoration took place, crabbing and fishing are still permitted. (Dave Harp)
While oyster harvesting is prohibited in the Maryland sanctuaries where restoration took place, crabbing and fishing are still permitted. (Dave Harp)

Ecological modeling done by Morgan State University’s Patuxent Environmental and Aquatic Research Laboratory in Calvert County projects an 80% increase in blue crab harvests and a 110% jump in white perch catch in the Choptank and Little Choptank river systems, where large-scale oyster restoration projects have been under way since 2011.

The Morgan study, underwritten by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, assumed that the restored oyster reefs will attract and support a diverse community of marine organisms, such as barnacles. Those, in turn, will draw crabs and finfish, which feed on them.

“There are potentially large benefits to commercially valuable species from an enhanced food web in this area,” said Scott Knoche, the lab’s director.

While another computer modeling study last year found that the restored reefs in Harris Creek were helping to rid the water there of nutrient pollution, this is the first research into the potential economic impacts of large-scale oyster restoration. While oyster harvesting is prohibited in the sanctuaries where restoration took place, crabbing and fishing are still permitted.

Overall, the study concludes, increased harvests of all fish and shellfish could put extra money in watermen’s pockets, including an additional $4.5 million in dockside sales just from a more bountiful crab catch. That could boost
the local economy as the additional income from seafood harvests is spent on goods and services in the region.

Maryland and Virginia have pledged to restore native oyster habitat and populations in a total of 10 Chesapeake Bay tributaries, five in each state. In Maryland, restoration work is complete in Harris Creek and partially done in the Tred Avon and Little Choptank rivers. When finished, those three projects are expected to restore 964 acres of reefs at a total cost of $72 million.

The projects have drawn fire from watermen, who contend that they are ineffective and exorbitantly expensive. They have pressed the state to let them resume limited harvests in at least some sanctuaries.

It’s not clear how long watermen should have to wait before they can realize the increased crab and perch harvests. Tom Ihde, a Morgan research assistant professor and the study’s co-author, said it could be three to eight years after all restoration is completed before the effects of an increased marine food web start to materialize.

One factor could undermine the study’s projections: Watermen have complained that reefs built of stone in Harris Creek and the Tred Avon interfere with their use of trotlines to harvest crabs. Trotlining — deploying a heavy, baited line in the water — is the only allowable gear for commercial crabbing in Maryland’s tributaries.

“There’s things that we’re not able to account for,” Knoche said. “One of those challenges is the way fishers use their gear and how the different environment might affect the use of that gear.” He suggested that would warrant a further study.

The Southern Maryland Chronicle is a local, small business entrusted to provide factual, unbiased reporting to the Southern Maryland Community. While we look to local businesses for advertising, we hope to keep that cost as low as possible in order to attract even the smallest of local businesses and help them get out to the public. We must also be able to pay employees(part-time and full-time), along with equipment, and website related things. We never want to make the Chronicle a “pay-wall” style news site.

To that end, we are looking to the community to offer donations. Whether it’s a one-time donation or you set up a reoccurring monthly donation. It is all appreciated. All donations at this time will be going to furthering the Chronicle through hiring individuals that have the same goals of providing fair, and unbiased news to the community. For now, donations will be going to a business PayPal account I have set-up for the Southern Maryland Chronicle, KDC Designs. All business transactions currently occur within this PayPal account. If you have any questions regarding this you can email me at davidhiggins@southernmarylandchronicle.com

Thank you for all of your support and I hope to continue bringing Southern Maryland the best news possible for a very long time. — David M. Higgins II

© 2019 The Southern Maryland Chronicle. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.