UPDATE: Watermen Protest Md. Oyster Project in Dorchester County - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

UPDATE: Watermen Protest Md. Oyster Project in Dorchester County

A WBOC NewsWatcher took this photo of watermen protesting the Maryland DNR's introduction of fossilized oysters along the Little Choptank River. A WBOC NewsWatcher took this photo of watermen protesting the Maryland DNR's introduction of fossilized oysters along the Little Choptank River.
CAMBRIDGE, Md.- A group of watermen took the day off work Thursday to protest and block a project by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in the Little Choptank River in Dorchester County. 

They got a late start Thursday morning, but their catch of the day wasn't crab, it was a boat delivering workers to a barge in the Little Choptank River.  The watermen are opposed to the idea of putting a layer of fossilized oyster shells along 187 acres of clear bottom in the river to provide a hard substrate for oyster spat to cling to, creating a new oyster bed.  The DNR said this will provide an ecosystem for thousands of oysters which can further speed up efforts to clean the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries such as the Little Choptank, as well as provide a habitat for crabs and fish.

But watermen are not in agreement. They say the project would cover up the mud that crabs will soon be crawling out of, and make the area unharvestable in the future.

During Thursday's protests the watermen were in 11 boats and stopped a crane from putting the shells in the river at 6 a.m. Almost five hours later, the Maryland Environmental Service ordered the work to be shut down for the day, before even one shovelful had been out in the river.  Dwane Paul, a waterman from Church Creek, says the number of watermen and boats was instrumental in their success.

"I think it's gonna take that many and a lot more.  We need all the help we can get and now's the time to stand up for it." said Paul.

Tom O'Connell says the protest was unfortunate and public tax money not spent well on Thursday.  He says the department has started getting feedback from watermen and Dorchester county since January, and they had been sending responses to all inquiries.  He says so far, the groups have not put forward any scientific evidence to support the claim that the fossil shells would damage the environment in the river.

Some watermen say they believe the DNR is jumping the gun on the project, because a public comment period was open until May 9th concerning the project.  O'Connell clarified that the state had the permit to begin spreading the fossil shell since 2008, and the current public comment period was open for a second permit that would allow them to also spread in shallower waters.

Scott Todd, President of the Dorchester Seafood Harvesters Association, and one of the organizers of the protest, says the shells in the barge that he found on Thursday were worse than he expected.

"The stuff that's in that barge is not shells, I don't know what it is.  It's just mostly sludge and mud and it's nothing that anything is going to stick to and get a spat set on." said Todd.

But O'Connell says every shipment of shell was thoroughly inspected before leaving Florida, and each  shipment contains a maximum of five percent of what he called "fine materials".  He did acknowledge that a few shipments did have a coating of a clay-like material.  Todd says he's concerned that these shells weren't cleaned enough, and could have the potential to introduce disease.

Todd's argument, and an argument of many watermen, is why use the shells from Florida when several hundreds of acres of shell already exist buried under the silt and need to be dredged up.

"There are shells there, we saw them on our depth sounders here, we can see the shells that are ten or twelve inches under.  There are plenty of shells there, we didn't have to go to florida to buy shells." said Todd.

O'Connell says their plan does use those shells, providing a base for the fossilized oysters to sit on top of, making the shells stick out of the mud and giving spat something to cling to. 

Some watermen said the project could devastate crabbing this season in the Little Choptank, by burying the crabs under a layer of shell before they can dig out of the mud.  But the DNR says crabs come out of the mud when the water temperature hits 52 degrees, and the current temperature is in the mid 50s.

The DNR started spreading shells on Tuesday.

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