Wild Chesapeake: What's Next in Man 'O War Dredging War?

Legislative efforts to protect Man O’ War Shoal, a popular upper Bay sport fishing area, fell short in the recently adjourned General Assembly.

None of the three bills that would have protected Man O’ War Shoal from oyster shell dredging made it out of committee during the 2019 session of the Maryland General Assembly, disappointing sport and conservation fishing groups as well as upper Bay watermen.

This live-bottom area is the largest relic oyster reef in the upper Chesapeake and lies east-southeast from the Patapsco River. “Live-bottom” refers to habitat that actively supports marine life. Dredging of the popular sport fishing site remains part of the state’s oyster restoration strategy. Specifically, the Department of Natural Resources could carve out as many as 30 million bushels of oyster shell, which supporters of the plan say is critical for oyster restoration further down the Bay. 

Before the General Assembly convened in January, recreational fishing interests, upper Bay watermen, and conservationists wanted legislators to separate Man O’ War from the oyster reef restoration discussion in order to preserve the shoal’s ecological function. Watermen who work in the area worry that carving up the reef will negatively impact their crab pot operations, which provide crabs to the thirty crab houses in Baltimore County alone, according to the Baltimore County Watermen’s Association.

Before any dredging can begin, the Board of Public Works, comprised of Governor Hogan, Treasurer Koop, and Comptroller Franchot, must issue DNR a wetlands permit. However, sources tell Wild Chesapeake it’s uncertain whether the three-panel board will take up the agency’s controversial application given the potential political ramifications for at least two of the board members.

In a written statement, the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland lamented the legislature’s inaction, stating, “To most, the issue is very simple, and when looking at facts and science, it makes no sense to attempt to repeat history and forever alter the upper Bay landscape, no matter how much proponents of dredging sugar-coat the issue.”

Capt. Ken Jeffries, president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association, told Wild Chesapeake, “Man O’ War Shoal is an area that has been holding and producing fish for the recreational fishery for years. In the last few years it has been supporting not only the northern Bay fishermen but also supporting boats as far south as Solomon’s that have been making the trip to Man O’ War on a daily basis. Now the state wants to destroy it under the guise of oyster restoration. The state should be ashamed and embarrassed by this decision.” 

 -Capt. Chris Dollar