A $30 million project on the Manokin River in Somerset County is on track to be the world’s largest oyster restoration effort.
The Manokin River, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is one of 10 tributaries identified through the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement that established goals and outcomes by 2025 for the restoration of the Bay.
A goal of 441 acres of oyster restoration was set for the Manokin River, and approximately 20 acres of the goal were already achieved through existing habitat. The remaining 421 acres would need to be created through a combination of constructing reefs using rock or mixed shells and planting spat (baby oysters) or spat on shell on suitable habitat.
For any restoration project, permits are required to evaluate potential project impacts - both positive and negative - on the environment before work can proceed. While USACE has been the lead for reef construction efforts on other tributaries, in the case of the Manokin, USACE played the role of regulator. Through the USACE Regulatory Program, regulators have an obligation to come to the most responsible and fair decisions when considering permit applications.
Each application has specific and unique issues and impacts that must be considered, with regulators weighing the potential benefits and detriments to the Chesapeake Bay watersheds and its users. Regulators objectively consider numerous public interest review factors when reviewing applications. Five issues that are commonly identified include potential impacts to navigation, recreation, endangered species, historic features, and tribal rights.
As the oyster restoration project lead for the Manokin tributary, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) submitted state and federal permit applications to the Maryland Department of the Environment and Baltimore District’s Regulatory Branch, respectively. In 2015 and again in 2019, USACE authorized DNR to plant up to three inches of oyster seed within the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the Manokin River. The regulatory reviews determined that the project complies with USACE’s Nationwide Permit 27, which authorizes restoration of aquatic resources, since them Manokin River historically supported native oyster populations.
In 2020, DNR submitted an additional application to MDE and USACE for authorization to place additional materials to construct reefs at 31 sites, comprising 333 acres of the targeted 421. The project proposed that once additional materials were deposited, these areas would then be planted with 1 to 3 inches of oyster seed.
Among other elements, Baltimore District regulators assessed the potential for navigation impacts created by the proposed work, given the location of several federal channels in the vicinity. This review was done in close coordination with several resource agencies and the USACE Navigation Branch. The regulatory team used available geographic information system (GIS) data to map traffic patterns within the Manokin River, and the data was compared to the proposed placement sites. After determining that the project would not impede navigation or present safety concerns, the additional work was authorized in December 2020. Restoration efforts include using rock or mixed shells to construct reefs.