PRINCESS ANNE — The Somerset County Commissioners are taking a stand against the state’s plan to tinker with the Manokin River oyster sanctuary and directed the county attorney to file an injunction against the Department of Natural Resources’ Oyster Restoration Project.
The commissioners are acting on the belief that the county owns the river bottom, and a senior instructor on the constitution said the sheriff could go as far as deputizing watermen to line up at the mouth of the river to block tons of stone from being dumped to form a substrate up to 12-inch deep.
The sanctuary "Blueprint" shows 441 acres are to receive mostly substrate and seed oysters on top of shell with the project goal of 50 oysters per square meter covering at least 30% of the restoration area in six years.
Work is expected to start in a few weeks and County Administrator Doug Taylor in his letter to attorney Kirk Simpkins requested that the injunction be filed "as soon as possible."
Commissioner Vice President Charles Laird said the county tried to work with DNR but now notice to proceed on the project is "shoved right in our face." He added, "this is going to end up in a court battle somewhere, and I’m all for it."
"I want to see that river functioning," he said. "It’s the dumbest thing in the world to close that river off." Mr. Laird, who has a tidal fishing license, said his remarks were his own but he believed he knew how the rest of the board felt.
In March, Commissioner President Craig Mathies Sr. wrote a letter to Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio expressing county opposition to the plan — asking for other methods to be considered "before the Manokin River fishery is compromised."
It’s been long held by commercial watermen that cultivating the bottom and "allowing rotational harvest of the sanctuary" would be "a win-win for oysters and watermen alike," Mr. Mathies wrote.
"The placement of substrate most likely will have dire consequences for the native oyster species and may also compromise the ability for watermen to harvest blue crabs (trotline), an economic staple to Somerset County watermen."
At the county meeting Tuesday last week the room was filled with anxious watermen from up and down the Eastern Shore. Eugene Evans representing Somerset County watermen said the Manokin River "has the best oyster bottom in the bay" and this "will push us out."
"Right now, you can’t go into none of these waters, and pickup a half a dozen oysters and take them home and eat ’em. You are breaking the law," even if the water "is to your back door," he said.
Mr. Evans said this issue affects more than just the watermen, it extends to their families as well as the businesses and workers that buy, shuck and sell the oysters. "This affects everybody down the line." "We need our waters back, no questions asked," adding that from what he hears, Somerset County "is the last stand in the state of Maryland for protecting what we have."
The Manokin River is the fifth large-scale tributary targeted for oyster restoration to meet the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement of 2014. The other sites are the Little Choptank, Harris Creek, Tred Avon and St. Mary’s River with Virginia committed to five locations as well.
Jeff Harrison, president of the Talbot County Watermen’s Association and member of the Oyster Advisory Committee, said he works Harris Creek. The 12 inches of stone was insufficiently covered with shell and not only are watermen barred from taking oysters those who trotline for crabs can’t find any place that they’re not going over stone. He said a project by watermen costing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to place shell on Broad Creek was successful, making it now one of the top five seed producing tributaries.
"There are actually more oysters in Broad Creek now than there are in Harris Creek after they spent $32 million," Mr. Harrison said. "It’s not like the watermen came up with this plan, it’s a scientific plan and for some reason we’ve gotten away from it."
He said the state is using stone because they say there aren’t enough shells, but Mr. Harrison said environmental groups block the use of known shell resources.
"The Manokin should have never been chosen," Mr. Harrison said. Despite multiple alternatives, "The Manokin was stolen" to be a sanctuary.
One speaker instilled confidence to county leaders that they have legal authority over the Manokin River. Pastor David Whitney is a senior instructor for Institute on the Constitution and is knowledgeable about the Maryland Constitution and its Declaration of Rights which expresses the right of the people to the land and waters.
Annapolis, he said, "has lost their mind" because "they see themselves as owners and masters when it’s not theirs, it belongs to the people of Somerset County, the people of Maryland." This kind of project "is designed to run the watermen out of business."
Pastor Whitney said the sheriff has the power of the county, or "posse comitatus" to raise a posse and deputize watermen to arrest those who violate the law. "If the DNR comes in and dumps rocks in your Manokin River they’re in violation of the law," he said, and should be arrested because the waters "belong to the people and not the state of Maryland and not the DNR."
While Sheriff Ronnie Howard agreed that the county "owns that water and the bottom" he can’t block DNR from dumping rocks into the river without action by the County Commissioners. But as President Mathies pointed out, "The commissioners don’t have any authority" over an elected sheriff.
"We’re behind you 100%," said Commissioner Rex Simpkins. "We’re behind you enforcing whatever law your counsel says you have the ability to do." But the sheriff replied that the commissioners have the ability to vote whether the river is open or not, and that is the authority he is looking for.
Pastor Whitney said later that he believes the sheriff already has the authority of the people to manage this waterway. "There will be a trial," he said, "and the courts will tell you you’re wrong...but the people will know that this county stands for the liberties and the properties and the God-given rights of the people." "These tyrants need to be stopped, and the sheriff has the power to stop them at the border of the county."
"People are going to look at this county and say these commissioners and this sheriff have stood up for our county," Vice President Laird said, "but we’ve got to do it now." "If that is wrong, then I don’t want to be here anymore."