“If you look at it from the perspective of a restoration practitioner, who has to spend the money to achieve (results), the Severn is not very successful in terms of oyster reproduction,” said Allison Colden, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland fisheries manager and a member of the Oyster Advisory Commission.
“You’re going to have to spend a lot more money and time to get that river up to the standards required.”
The case for the Severn
Whitcomb has focused for nearly a decade on helping oysters return to the Severn.
As the Severn program manager for the Marylanders Grow Oysters program, he’s recruited more than 400 volunteers to help plant and grow the bivalves, which are known for their ability to clean dirty water by filtering pollutants out.
The infrastructure is already in place to start planting oysters on a larger scale right away, Whitcomb said.
There’s substrate in the river between the Route 50 and Route 450 bridges, where oyster beds used to be – the result of a 2009 survey of historic oyster habitats by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and an Army Corps of Engineers installation project.
The same year, the state designated the entire river as an oyster sanctuary area. Harvesting oysters from the Severn had already been banned for years because of health concerns based on the river’s water quality, according to the Department of Natural Resources, though scientists hope restoration work will help carry larvae downstream where the habitat is more accommodating.
The river’s location is another reason it should be selected, supporters of the Severn argue.
“It’s the state capital’s scenic river,” Severn River Commission chairman Charlie Kreter wrote in an email outlining the Severn’s advantages. “This gives extra opportunity for enhancing public awareness and keeping oysters in the forefront of bay restoration efforts.”
Whitcomb argued the state’s sanctuaries should be geographically diverse.
The first three Maryland tributaries to be designated sanctuaries under the state’s commitment – Harris Creek and the Little Choptank and Tred Avon rivers – are all on the Eastern shore.
The remaining two should be on the western shore, Whitcomb said. “They should choose one down south and one up north in order to widen the experiment.”
There’s also the advantage of local engagement, he said.
Next month, volunteers will plant 2,000 cages of spat – the term for oyster larvae once they have attached to a surface – into the water as part of their continuing efforts.
“That’s a demonstration of citizen involvement that should say a great deal to our elected officials as well as to [the Department of Natural Resources],” Whitcomb said. “At some point in time that needs to be recognized.”
Other tributaries might still be a better bet, said Colden.
Because the Severn has already been designated a sanctuary, its selection would not create a new opportunity to protect oysters from harvesting, she said.
And despite planting efforts, the Severn River hasn’t been seeing reproduction among its existing oyster population.
“When we go back and look, we see the oysters we planted – and there haven’t been any new oysters that have settled in that place besides the ones we put there,” Colden said. “Nobody really knows the root cause.
Some factors might include the water’s low salinity levels – which varies from seven to 12 parts per thousand, slightly lower than desired for natural reproduction — and its relatively sparse existing oyster population.
The Magothy and South Rivers, also among the list of finalists for sanctuary designation by the state, face the same obstacles. But advocates for those tributaries said they shouldn’t be written off in favor of the Severn.
“The thing that I think sets the South apart is we have an oyster sanctuary, we have commercial oyster reefs and we have oyster leases, all in the same river,” said South Riverkeeper Jesse Iliff. “To the extent that there would be any travel of natural spat, they can be distributed into the sanctuary and onto commercial reefs. There’s an environmental and economic benefit that isn’t present in the other rivers.”
The South River is also slightly saltier than the Severn, and its wider mouth means it benefits from more tidal flushing, which can clear out accumulations of sediment that threaten oyster populations, Iliff added.
Magothy River Association President Paul Spadaro said poor water quality in the Magothy is proof that it needs more attention.
“It would seem obvious that whatever restoration and preservation efforts should be focused on the rivers that are more at risk than some of the other rivers that seem to be maybe improving,” he said. “The Magothy is sick, but it’s currently not dead.”
And, Spadaro said, the Magothy has acres of intact wetlands as well as documented yellow perch spawning grounds.
He suggested dividing restoration money among Anne Arundel’s three eligible tributaries.
“The Severn has been designated as a scenic river, and sometimes I feel like some of these other rivers have just been in the wayside.”
Owen McEvoy, a spokesman for Schuh, said the county executive decided to put his weight behind the Severn because “you have to acknowledge the obvious reality that more than likely they’re not both going to be in Anne Arundel County.”
“We’re blessed to have a large number of tributaries here, but for a large-scale, state-financed, big operation, the Severn is probably the most conducive to that,” he said.
There is no set timeline for a decision on which two tributaries will be designated for restoration, according to DNR spokesman Gregg Bortz. The department is in the process of reviewing the commission’s input.
“There’s no specific time frame for that, other than we are committed to meeting the restoration goals of the 2025 agreement,” he said.