Keystone species are those species which have a disproportionately large effect on their surrounding environment in comparison to their abundance. Historically, oysters in the coastal bays and Chesapeake were beneficial keystone species, cleaning water through filter feeding, providing habitat for other animals by forming reefs, and providing natural shoreline erosion control by absorbing wave energy.
Many restoration experts believe that the long term health of all of Maryland’s bays relies on the successful repopulation of the eastern oyster. It is well known that oysters filter microscopic algae from the water column, decreasing the severity of anoxic conditions caused by the decomposition of algae. Removing microalgae from the water also improves water clarity thereby supporting the health of submerged aquatic vegetation like eelgrass which provides food and refuge for a number of important fish and shellfish species. A popular argument for aquaculture is that it will be difficult to sustain our current level of water quality without restoring one of nature’s best filtering mechanisms.
The challenges to oyster restoration are many. They include both unfavorable environmental conditions and conflicts stemming from different water use values. Many of these issues were brought up at a public information meeting on the proposed oyster aquaculture site off of South Point.
Donald Marsh is the entrepreneur who presented his plan for oyster aquaculture just off of South Point to a room filled with local citizens at the University of Maryland Paul S. Sarbanes Coastal Ecology Center at Assateague on November 16th. The meeting, facilitated by the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, allowed Mr. Marsh to explain his plan to the public and also allowed the public to voice their comments and concerns about the placement of this site.
Mr. Marsh proposes to lease approximately 35 acres of bay bottom which will host long lines of oyster cages tethered together by high strength rope that is attached to spikes driven deep into the bay floor. The underwater farm would be broken into three parcels between 1,000 and 1,600 feet off of the northwest to southeast slanting shoreline that is the southern border of South Point.
This proximity to the homes of South Point was the most common concern among those speaking at the meeting. Many people said that they are not opposed to oyster aquaculture in general and if the operation was moved just a half mile further south they would not oppose it.
Some of the concerns related to the farm’s distance from shore included:
1) Danger to those using those waters recreationally. Whether swimming, kite surfing, jet skiing, wakeboarding, kayaking or sailing, if someone should accidentally enter these farming areas while recreating, or if materials from the bottom should become loosened and move off of the farm site, someone could get hurt.
2) Navigational hazards for recreational and commercial boats in what has been historically used as a “de facto channel.” The proposed sites do not fall within the official navigation channel.
3) Loss of aesthetic value due to a need for marker buoys showing cage locations, noisy power washers, and an increase in commercial boats in the area. Several property owners expect that this will reduce their property values.
4) Displacement of existent valuable natural resources. The Virginia Institute for Marine Science has recorded eelgrass beds in this area and watermen know of its presence as it relates to their crab harvest.
This is by no means a complete list of the concerns voiced at the meeting. Also, a handful of people spoke in support of the project questioning the validity of some of the claims of those opposing Mr. Marsh’s business plan.
The process of selecting a site for oyster growth in our coastal bays is very complex and there are some who argue that the conditions in our bays will simply not allow oysters, even farmed oysters, to survive. Mr. Marsh had oysters with him at the meeting which he claims to have grown off of South Point in the last few years.
While there is no question that the successful return of oysters to our bays’ ecosystems would be beneficial for water quality and all species, including humans, affected by it, there are legitimate claims to the value of keeping these 35 acres of water open for its historic uses.
The question, as with many environmental debates, is which values do we value most? If you would like to express your opinion on the topic, MDNR and MDE will be accepting comments until December 1st.
Bill Mahoney is an intern with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.