TALBOT COUNTY, Md. -- Sandwiched between two peninsulas on Maryland's Eastern Shore where rural and open lands contrast the urbanization across the bay, the Army Corps of Engineers has built possibly the world's largest oyster sanctuary at Harris Creek.
Farther east in another bay tributary, the Tred Avon River, the Corps has built reefs to restore 80 acres.
And a few miles off the coast of Talbot County, the Corps is working with the Maryland Port Authority and other government agencies to restore and expand Poplar Island, a once-flourishing strip of land that saw its 1,000 acres dwindle to four over the past 170 years.
Talbot County, one of the earliest sites of European settlement in the New World, boasts 600 miles of coastline and a wealth of natural resources. Here, 30 miles south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the Army Corps' Baltimore District has embarked on restoration projects to help resuscitate the Chesapeake's once-abundant oyster population and breathe life into its ecosystem.
British settlers first established Talbot County in 1662, during the middle of English colonization on the American east coast. The bay waters today contrast starkly with what the bay colonists saw.
Overharvesting, disease and a growing population in the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed have gradually changed the water quality of the bay. The eastern or American oyster acted as a natural water filter for the 4,500-square-mile Chesapeake. But as the oyster's numbers fell, the bay's water quality suffered. In 1885, about 15 million bushels of oysters were harvested. That number fell below 100,000 in 1994 and again from 2003-2004 before rebounding to 345,621 in 2013.
Building oyster reefs not only benefits oysters, but other species such as blue crabs, according to experts.
"There's a community -- an ecosystem that just lives on oyster reefs," said Susan Conner, chief of planning for the Corps' Norfolk District. "And the hard substrate along the bottom of the bay is helpful. It used to be that much of the Chesapeake Bay was covered with oysters that helped with sedimentation and it was just a different habitat than now ... The Corps invests in oyster restoration for habitat quality improvement."
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement established in 2014 set a goal to restore the habitat of 10 tributaries by 2025. The Corps' Norfolk District and Baltimore District each will restore five tributaries of the bay, including the completion of a 25-acre project on Virginia's Piankatank River last month.
Built on the western edge of Talbot County, the 350-acre restoration site at Harris Creek has turned into a haven for new oyster populations and other aquatic life. The Corps, with the help of various Maryland-based contractors, completed the groundwork for oyster population restoration in 2016. The $27.7-million project restored 8 percent of the creek's 4,500 acres. Corps officials hope projects like Harris Creek will create sustainable oyster populations in a bay that hosts only 1 percent of its historic levels.
"We're seeing good signs. We're seeing natural spat sets," said Angie Sowers, Integrated Water Resources specialist at the Corps Baltimore District. "We're seeing oysters surviving."
The Corps had planned to introduce new classes of oysters each year to help support the population growth. Since the project began, Sowers said the natural population growth had progressed so well that new oyster populations from outside sources were not planted until this summer.
Before the Corps began building reefs at Harris, only one site in the Chesapeake tributaries met the Corps goal of 15 oysters per square meter. After the Corps completed restoration groundwork, more than 90 percent of the 30 reefs built met that goal.
"There's three-dimensional reefs that have not existed in the bay in a very long time," Sowers said. "That's really replacing a critical habitat that hasn't been in the system."
As the Norfolk District did with the Virginia sites, the Baltimore District used data provided by National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration maps to scout the region and determine the best sites to plant the reefs. Due to limited quantities of oyster shell, the Corps used a mix of stone from a quarry at Havre De Grace, Maryland and clam shells processed in Cape May, New Jersey.
The Corps completed the initial groundwork for Harris Creek in 2016, but will continue to monitor the site.
GROWING OYSTER REEFS
The Corps will observe random points at all restoration sites, measuring and counting oysters. To collect samples at shell reefs, the Corps uses patent tongs. For stone reefs, divers must manually collect samples underwater due to the depth of the reefs.
In the Tred Avon, the NOAA planted a mix of oyster shell and rock at sites in the 17-mile tributary: one close to the river's mouth near the port town of Oxford, another at Hambleton Point near Trippe Creek, and another at an inlet of Peachblossom Creek.
Sowers said frequent harvesting of oysters can decimate a natural oyster reef, making it necessary to create a sanctuary where oyster populations can thrive.
"(The) act of harvesting knocks a lot of that reef structure down," Sowers said. "So we wanted these reefs to be sanctuaries where they would be protected from harvesting."
Previous restoration projects prior to 2009's Executive Order 13508 suffered from illegal harvesting. President Obama signed the executive order to establish a leadership committee protecting and restoring the health of the Chesapeake. Prior projects were not planned as well, Sowers said, and as a result, reefs broke down.
"You might have a reef survive for a while and have healthy oysters in it," she said. "But eventually most of it is degraded or poached, and not consistent in the long term. And it didn't have any system-wide impact."
The impact of the restoration projects has had minimal effects so far on the fortunes of Maryland's watermen, said Jim Mullin, Maryland Oysterman Association's president. Many Maryland watermen said that the sanctuaries would be better served if they could occasionally be opened for harvesting.
It is still dark when Ryan Mould casts off his workboat into the mouth of the Patuxent River in Solomons Island, Maryland. Five days a week during oyster season, Mould commutes an hour south from Shady Side, Maryland, to a dock in Solomons, on the eastern end of the Patuxent.
At 27, Mould has only harvested oysters for 10 years. He started a part-time harvesting business during his senior year of high school. One thing he understands, however, is the bay's impact on the seafood harvesting businesses.
He struggles to find words to describe what the Chesapeake means to oystermen. Growing up near one of the Chesapeake's tributaries, the West River, Mould has lived near the bay for most of his life.
"You're down at the boat before the sun comes up," Mould said. "And you hear the world start to move before lights come on in houses. (The bay is) everything … I don't know how to explain it. There's no better way to make a living. It's freedom."
Maryland's oystermen have found that freedom has been limited in some places. Restrictions on oyster harvesting have reduced the number of areas they can go to harvest in the upper Chesapeake. Old oyster harvest staples such as Harris Creek have closed to enable bay restoration efforts.
Mould, whose business has steadily grown since its inception in 2013, employs eight people in the summertime, including his mother Diane, and wife Ashley. In order to keep their business going, Mound and many other watermen need to travel farther south.
Mullin said that watermen have spoken with Army Corps members and voiced their concerns. The watermen said they hope to change misconceptions about their views on bay restoration.
He sells oysters wholesale at local farmer's markets in Prince George's and Calvert counties, carrying bushels of oysters to sell to nearby residents. Oystermen now must travel to limited public harvesting areas and compete with other oystermen to keep their businesses going. In the 2016-2017 oyster season, watermen harvested 224,609 bushels of oysters down from 383,090 in 2015-2016. Mullin said the decline was due to poor spat sets in the bay since 2013.
Mould has served the Anne Arundel Watermen's Association for the past three years as its vice president and as a board member. He said the watermen support the bay restoration efforts, but would like to see some of the policies change.
The watermen have proposed turning sanctuaries like those in the Patuxent and St. Mary's River into a rotational harvest where the waters would remain open to harvesting during certain times of the year. Mould said sanctuary areas can grow stagnant and oyster populations will die out.
Blair Baltus, 57, has harvested blue crabs in the upper Chesapeake for more than 30 years. He remembers a different bay when he caught his first fish on Baltimore's shores as a child in the 1960s.
"I remember looking down into the water and seeing the bottom at six or seven feet deep," said Baltus, who harvests crabs near Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. "The water was crystal clear."
Baltus harvested oysters near the Chester and Choptank Rivers on the Eastern Shore for five years in the late 1980s.
Baltus said that fallout and sewage from storms created sediment plumes that can block sunlight from seagrass. Most recently in 2011, Tropical Storm Lee caused excessive flooding which poured sediment into much of the bay's waters. The Baltimore native said he worries the growing populations in the bay's watershed will do further damage to the ecosystem.
"They spend so much money -- years and years cleaning up the bay," Baltus said. "The best they can do is maintain it where it's at. You're never going to get it back to when Capt. John Smith sailed up the bay and discovered the Chesapeake in the pristine condition that it was. You're never going to see that again."
"We're for restoration. We're for the bay to be better -- cleaner," Mould said. "If the bay isn't clean, we don't make a living. Disease can come in and wipe our business out. We depend on that bay to make a living."
AN ONGOING BATTLE
While oyster populations may never reach their historic levels that the English colonists witnessed, the restoration projects have successfully increased oyster numbers in the bay.
The sanctuary at Harris Creek has grown into the largest oyster sanctuary in the world. Combined with the successes of the Corps' Norfolk District at the Great Wicomico River and the recent completion of restoration sites at the Piankatank River in August, prospects for future oyster populations look promising.
"It's definitely exciting. Things are going well," Sowers said. "But there's also always that cautious optimism because we know how big a role Mother Nature plays in this and we can't control that."
The restoration efforts continue to be a passion project for many in the Corps and other government agencies. Susan Conner, chief of planning for the Norfolk District, grew up in rural Dorchester County on Maryland's eastern shore. She returned to Maryland after working for the Corps' Jacksonville District in Florida. Conner said she felt the bay's impact on the community, the watermen and the farmers. Her father spent long years growing corn, beet and soy on her family's farm near Vienna.
Conner has helped spearhead the recent tributary restoration efforts for the past seven years. The Corps has not yet received approval to continue to build more reefs within the bay, but other sites have been identified. Two neighboring rivers, the Lafayette and Lynnhaven Rivers in the south, and tributaries such as the Great Wicomico and Lower York have been selected for restoration, but the Corps must wait for funding.
Building reefs in areas with a healthy supply of oysters is the key to shellfish restoration, said Andrew Button of the Virginia Resources Commission. In turn, he said the health of the bay could depend on a healthy oyster population.
(This article is the second one in a three-part series about Army Corps of Engineers' efforts to restore Chesapeake Bay.)