“Aw shucks, we’re happy to help”

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

Ever hear of the Oyster Express? In the midst of a season filled with stories of railroads running special Santa trains all over the country to bring food, clothing, toys, and some Christmas cheer to needy people, a report came across my desk about a partnership involving CSX Transportation, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to restore an “oyster sanctuary.”

For the record, an oyster sanctuary is not a place where oysters can go to avoid being harvested and consumed by humans in seafood restaurants and upscale oyster bars and sushi joints. It’s quite the opposite, and CSX was instrumental in this effort to assist the slimy little shellfish, which in the Chesapeake Bay provide natural filtering capabilities that help improve the water quality by filtering silt, sediment, and nitrates.

This railroad-oyster savior partnership recently came to a close with delivery of the 22nd and final freight train filled with fossilized oyster shells from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay. Over the past 12 months, CSX transported about 100,000 tons of the fossilized shell to help rebuild habitat in two Maryland oyster sanctuaries. Trains carrying the shells were delivered to CSX’s Curtis Bay ore pier once every 10 to 14 days, where the shells were transferred to barges for the trip to the sanctuaries on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Once in place, the shells, which form a viable oyster reef, support an ecosystem habitat where young oysters can thrive and provide those important water filtering services.

“Using the best available science, MDNR and our many partners are working together to restore oyster habitats in Maryland,” said MDNR Secretary Joe Gill (rather appropriate last name, don’t you think?). “We are already seeing remarkable results in Harris Creek. Once-degraded reefs are now teeming with life as a direct result of our collaborative efforts, and we couldn’t be more excited about the progress. With the help of our partners, the State has planted more than a billion oysters in the Harris Creek Sanctuary since 2011. Since restoration efforts began, areas with less than one oyster per square meter now have upwards of 25 oysters per square meter.”

The type of volume only a railroad can support, no doubt!

CSX chief executive Michael Ward, a Baltimore native whose family is in the restaurant business (Mom Ward’s Sub Shop, 5910 Ritchie Hwy., Brooklyn, Md., described by one satisfied patron as “Right out of the 1950s in style—counter seats and wood paneling that make the atmosphere here inviting to those who want an old-school sub shop . . . . The wait staff are nice and friendly as long as you’re behaving . . . food fresh and priced right . . . four stars for all that it doesn’t represent. . . . Reminds me of the sub shops I went to as a kid . . . . Stop in for a bite, but ‘go large’ on your drink, because there are no refills—the sign says so.”) no doubt can appreciate the importance of clean Chesapeake Bay water.

“Oysters have been central to Maryland’s way of life for centuries, and restoring the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster beds is critical for this region’s environment and the economy,” he said. “CSX is proud to be a part of this unique public-private partnership in helping to restore one of our nation’s greatest natural assets.”

I would like to add that CSX, and in fact all the railroads, are among our nation’s greatest national assets.

The science behind maintaining healthy oyster beds is quite fascinating, as was CSX’s role in this project, as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation tells us:

“With a lack of natural, affordable shell available to support restoration of the two sanctuaries, MDNR and its partners found the quality and quantity of the next best thing—fossilized shell—for purchase from Gulf Coast Aggregates near Carrabelle, Fla. To address the challenge and expense of moving the large volume of material, NFWF negotiated an agreement with CSX to transport the shell at cost. Maryland purchased the materials at a cost of approximately $6.3 million. CSX provided an in-kind investment valued at approximately $2.4 million in the form of reduced-cost transportation. The Maryland Environmental Service is coordinating the effort on behalf of the State. Production of young oysters and their placement on the new reefs will be conducted by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the Oyster Recovery Partnership. The sanctuaries were chosen for the initial large-scale restoration project because of their water quality, salinity levels, shape, location, and protected sanctuary status all point to a high likelihood of success. More than 150,000 cubic yards of granite from a Maryland quarry also will be used as substrate in the sanctuaries. Scientists believe the project ultimately can serve as a blueprint to expand large-scale oyster restoration efforts to other Bay tributaries. Maryland and its partners continue to make progress under all 10 points of the Governor’s Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan, adopted in 2010. In 2013, Governor O’Malley announced another oyster restoration landmark, as the state and its partners produced and planted 1.25 billion oysters that year. The University of Maryland Horn Point Hatchery was responsible for the record—the first time any oyster hatchery in the country has passed the one billion mark for Eastern oyster spat (a spat is a larva of an oyster or similar bivalve that has settled by attaching to a surface) production.”

That’s no (shell)fish story!

And remember: After the present Congress adjourns, we’ll all be able to enjoy “Oysters Without Jay Rockefeller.”

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