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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Old Wilson Bridge Finds New Life As Artificial Reef for Baby Oysters

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer


Marine biologists and divers hand-delivered 500,000 baby oysters to the first of five new artificial reefs created from the rubble of the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge this week, part of a broader effort to restore the badly depleted oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay.

On Thursday, a six-person diving crew planted the native oyster spat on 80 acres of concrete slabs on the bay's sandy bottom about 10 miles southwest of Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County. The artificial reef is also providing a habitat for rockfish, black sea bass and other fish.

The project, known as the Dominion Reef at the Gooses, is a "small-scale example" of what Maryland officials could propose to the 2009 General Assembly as part of the state's oyster restoration effort, said Martin Gary, a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

This week, state and federal environmental officials released a major study addressing ways to revive the bay's oysters. Possible fixes include a temporary harvest moratorium and the introduction of nonnative Asian oysters.

The reef project, estimated to cost $1.4 million for the five sites, represents a far less sweeping but important step, state officials said. "It is not a perfect program, but with what we are trying to do, our hearts are in the right place," Gary said.

The project is one of the largest undertaken by the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative, a coalition of groups sharing an interest in improving the environment below the surface of Maryland waters.

Earlier this year, the coalition was involved in dumping old New York subway cars into the Atlantic Ocean to house marine life near Ocean City, and next week it will use old Bay Bridge decks to build an oyster reef in the Severn River.

The latest reef project -- named after the Dominion utility, which donated $275,000 -- attracted about 60 partners, including scientists, corporations, environmental groups and sport fishermen, Gary said.

Before the Wilson Bridge's concrete deck was placed into the water, the bay's floor "was a barren desert," Gary said. "There was no reason for marine life to be there."

In the mid-1800s, an average of 15 million bushels of oysters were caught annually in Maryland waters. The yearly harvest dropped below 1 million bushels in the late 1980s because of disease and pollution, according to experts. In addition, about 2,000 acres of natural oyster habitat disappear each year, said Stephan R. Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

On Thursday, Nick Caloyianis, an Oscar-winning underwater filmmaker from Catonsville who has been documenting the reef project, said there was "an amazing array" of other marine life at the site already.

"It is definitely doing its job as an artificial reef. We are seeing a lot of health down there," he said.

Brian Keehn, president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association and captain of the Canvasback, a boat that transported the divers, biologists and others to the reef, praised the oyster-planting effort.

"This is a win-win for all users of the bay, the fish and the habitat," said Keehn, whose organization had been advocating for artificial reefs for five years.


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