PRINCESS ANNE — A complaint filed last Thursday by the Somerset County Commissioners against the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio requests the Circuit Court declare the county owns the bottom of the Manokin River.
Along with that the commissioners want a temporary then permanent restraining order prohibiting DNR from proceeding with the Maryland Oyster Restoration Project (MORP) that was expected to start this month.
This legal maneuver is a last-ditch effort to prevent DNR from placing stone on 400 acres of the river bottom which watermen oppose.
The seven-page complaint seeks a declaratory judgment that the restoration project “impinges upon Somerset County’s right to… regulate that portion of the Manokin River bottom contained within its borders” and requests a permanent injunction to bar the department from moving forward with its plans.
In 2010 DNR named the Manokin River an oyster sanctuary, despite the county’s control and jurisdiction. It was “to be temporary in nature and designed to help replenish the oyster population in its waters,” according to the facts of the case.
This proved to be successful and the Manokin “is currently one of the most productive oyster grounds in the State of Maryland.”
In 2018 a Western Shore waterway was replaced by the Manokin River to be one of five locations in the state to be part of DNR’s Maryland Oyster Restoration Project — “despite its now abundant oyster population.” Non-indigenous materials are planned to be used to construct reefs before seeding for new oyster beds.
The county contends that these artificial reefs elsewhere have “resulted in negligible increase in oysters as opposed to natural reefs while having a devastating effect on the overall use of navigable waters.”
Watermen recently appeared before county leaders to say these projects also inhibit fishing and crabbing, especially trotlining.
Should the project proceed, the county’s suit states, “the artificial changes to the waterway will make it impracticable, bordering on impossible, to harvest oysters in Somerset County. The plan will have an equally devastating impact on other fishing, including crabbing.”
Further is will “permanently negate” the county’s ability to regulate aquaculture.
The declaratory judgment asks the court to prevent DNR’s “attempts to usurp the authority of the Plaintiffs with respect to the Manokin River.”
“Unless Defendants are ordered to cease and desist all efforts to proceed with the implementation of the MORP for Manokin River, Plaintiffs and the citizens of Somerset County, Maryland, will suffer immediate, substantial, and irreparable injury,” the lawsuit states, and seeks a temporary injunction “to maintain the status quo until a full hearing on the merits can be held.”
According to DNR Secretary Haddaway-Riccio, it was the General Assembly that created the Manokin River oyster sanctuary after overriding Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto. The department in fact supported a plan to have a portion of the river stay open for commercial harvesting with a separate area being designated a sanctuary and restoration site — but the legislative action obligates DNR to proceed.
She stated in a letter to Sheriff Ronnie Howard that alternatives include having the General Assembly pass new legislation that re-designates a commercial harvest area in the river, or for watermen to establish aquaculture lease areas and begin working them now which is allowed.
As for the substrate to be used in the restoration, Secretary Haddaway-Riccio stated there is a limited amount of natural shell, and following a meeting at the Deal Island fire station DNR agreed to use the smallest stone possible.
The plan as approved involves 441 acres with the stone and seed (hatchery spat) to be used on approximately 157 acres and the remaining 284 acres would be seed only. The first year only 10 to 30 acres would receive substrate and seed work, after which it will be evaluated.
The department has not filed its response to the county’s complaint and no court date has been set.