Severn oysters get boost from watermen

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, 03/05/09

Joshua McKerrow - The Capital. Charles Crouch pans oyster shells into a crate after separating any live ones.

Jeff Baker directed his workboat Anre-Wayd in the chilly Severn River, dragging a mesh metal bag across the river bottom, searching for oyster shells.

Each time Baker hoisted the dredge, he and crewman Charles Crouch spilled the contents onto a culling table. Mostly, they found the old shells they were looking for. Occasionally, they found big, live oysters.

More often, they found trash: bottles, a Miller High Life beer can, a busted bucket.

The oyster shells were then moved to the other side of the river, part of an effort to build up a base of an oyster reef.

The shell-moving is one of dozens of projects going on across the Chesapeake Bay, as the state hires watermen for environmental-restoration projects, in an effort to soften the economic blow dealt by restrictions on their crab harvests.

"I'm glad we have it to do," said Baker, who is based in Rock Hall on the Upper Eastern Shore. "If not, it would be pretty slow."

The work on the Severn River is one of the most visible projects, with more than 20 boats circling the waters between the Naval Academy Bridge and the Severn River Bridge, scooping up oyster shells and rearranging them.

So far, the crews on the Severn have moved 8,000 bushels of shell.

The newly improved shell bases will be coated with baby oysters later this year. The river is off-limits to harvesting, so the oysters - if they survive - should grow and filter the water and attract other marine life.

Usually a few dozen watermen are hired for such oyster-restoration projects each year, said Stephan Abel, director of the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership, which works with the state and private organizations on oyster projects.

But since the governor set aside $3 million to help struggling watermen, the amount of oyster-restoration work has been multiplied many times over. All told, the watermen will prepare 1,000 acres of oyster bars this winter for later plantings of baby oysters, called spat.

Mostly, the watermen are dredging up shell to shake loose the coating of mud and sediment that smothers oysters. Some projects, like the one in the Severn, involve moving shell around, too.

"This stuff is buried," Abel said.

The state is spending $2.5 million of the $3 million to hire watermen for environmental projects, and almost all of that is going to the oyster work. The other half-million is going to aquaculture.

By the time the work is done, about 600 watermen will each get 10 days worth of work. Boat captains get $500 per day, and that payment covers fuel and other costs. Crewmen get $150 per day.

The state also is receiving $10 million over three years for various programs aimed at helping watermen and boosting blue crabs. That money is coming from the federal government after the declaration of a "fishery disaster" for blue crabs.

Maryland and Virginia officials started cutting back the crab harvest last year in hopes of keeping the declining population from slipping too far.

Mike Naylor, director of shellfish programs for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the state also would apply for federal stimulus money for environmental projects that might employ watermen.

  • VIDEO Severn River Oyster Restoration
    Watermen are working on an oyster restoration project in the Severn River. They've been hired by the state through a program aimed at helping both financially struggling watermen and the environment.
  • SLIDESHOW Severn River Oyster Rehabilitation
    Watermen are dredging up long buried oyster shells and dumping them back into the Severn to make new oyster bars.


(Revised January 2009)