Updated: WBOC TV, Man O War Shoals, and False News by Marc Castelli

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Non-aligned journalism is even more important in these days of “fake-news” and presidentially personal news services. Recently a Maryland television station, WBOC, allowed itself to be used by several organizations for their own purposes of self-promotion.

The article/segment was about the watermen trumpeting a hard-won decades-long victory in winning the rights to dredge for oyster shell on Man O War Shoals in the upper Bay. The piece featured a fair amount of false information, outright manufactured news and blatantly misleading self-promotion.

The world of news is increasingly fast-paced these days. Social media has made fact-checking time consuming which makes accurate reporting difficult. But that should never be an excuse for not exercising due diligence when reporting. The segment that was in dire need of fact-checking by the all too trusting reporter included some alarming misdirections. I will list the errors in the video segment below.

The oyster bar known as Man O War shoals is not just a sanctuary. Only a portion of that shoal is a sanctuary. The implication that watermen will now be allowed to dredge shell from a sanctuary is dangerously misleading and to do so is illegal.

The public needs to realize that the 5 million bushels of shell that will be dredged as a short-term 5-year experiment is not a lot of shell. This is even more apparent when that amount is to be divided up among sanctuaries, aquaculture, and the oyster industry.The spokesman for the newcomer organization, “Delmarva Fisheries Association” (DFA), Mr. Tom Bradshaw made the “victory” sound as if it was solely the result of his organization’s “decades-long” hard work.

DFA has been around for a little over three years. The struggle for renewing a shell dredge permit was started by Delegate Tony O’Donnell in 2006 at an Oyster Advisory Commission meeting, with the full support of the Maryland Waterman’s Association (MWA), and the Maryland Oystermen Association (MOA). For those two organizations, it has been a long struggle. Not by any definition a decades-long fight. The state legislature mandated the permit application; it is the law. It has been pared down by many environmental stakeholders to its current incarnation of a 5-year study to record the effects of shell dredging. It is not a permit for widespread dredging of shell from Man O War or any other bar in perpetuity.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s assertion that the process is not cost effective is reveals that CBF will complain as loudly as the media will allow when it feels that any funding not coming its way is misspent. The funding for the Man O War shell dredge experiment comes from several sources of which only a portion is from the Obama mandated Chesapeake Restoration Bill. Information that comes from the experiment fits the need for restoring the bay.

The CBF’s assertion that their plan of concrete balls for oyster bar restoration is the best technique for alternate substrates is not the solution. It is at best a cynical plan to deny any bar that has such devices planted on it to be permanently removed from any future active management plan that might be better and more cost effective.
The images of successful concrete oyster bar restoration are misleading. Using photos to survey an oyster bar is at best subjective. It can be an exercise in smoke and mirrors. The business that performs the surveys needs to explain to the public how it conducts the surveys and how “scientific” they actually are.

I will address the errors in the written portion below.

Despite assertions made to the contrary, no shell will be dredged from either sanctuary portions or from planted areas.

The erroneous self-promotion by DFA expressed in the video segment was also repeated in the written article accompanying the video. DFA has not been around for decades. It piggybacked its “success” on the many years of efforts carried out by MWA. and the MOA. It is unfortunate that all the hard and steady efforts of the MWA. and the MOA were purposefully ignored by the DFA. Restoring the oyster industry is an effort carried on by many organizations and will need to be so for many years to come.

The dredge permit approval is only for a five year scientifically monitored experiment with very limited dredging allowed.

The seed and shell programs erroneously credited to the watermen by the DFA. have been state programs that were conducted with the industry’s co-operation along with the use of industry gear and boats. Those programs were halted in 2006 with CBF, CCA. approval and backed up by the past O’Malley/Griffin administration.

Once again, CBF oversimplified the costs effectiveness of the project. The funding is multi-sourced. A majority of the shell will go to the sanctuaries, as that protocol is the most funded. I have a hard time imagining anyone would object to increasing the already large amount of scientific information about the effects of shell dredging. This is even more obvious when with some more in-depth journalism the public would see that the project has been planned and reviewed many times to reduce the amount of any envisaged damages.

For more information, please refer to the D.N.R. 72-page explanation of the permit.

http://dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/oysters/permit-applications.aspx
http://dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/Documents/Attachment_1-Man_O_War_Application_revFeb2017.pdf

The 2017 February review is the most recent. You will find all of the known science, maps, and the many missing facts from the article/video and in the CBF statements about the project. It’s all there for foundations, stakeholders, and citizens to read and for journalists to be better able to inform the public. I am constantly puzzled by the media’s lack of effort to get the facts from as many sources as possible. The reporter in this instance should have gone to the DNR for cross-checking the information presented by the CBF and DFA.

Marc Castelli is an artist who lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Addendum 

This column is a more detailed piece about the Man O War issue as it was presented to the state legislature during the last session in Annapolis. It deals with the apparent willingness of two specific groups to ignore the facts when presenting testimony to the House Environmental Matters and Education Committee. Most alarming is the ready acceptance of the legislators to just let the falsehoods slide without questioning their sources.

 

Oyster shell. Who knew? It once was used for driveways, ornamental garden borders and many other purposes that denoted its lack of importance in the grand scheme of things. Shell is now an obvious finite resource. It is the best substrate for any oyster projects, replenishment or restoration, for the combined reasons that oyster larvae prefer it to other substrates on which to strike or attach, and it is a natural material that matches the composition of every oyster bar in Maryland. Now it is a resource being fought over by all stake holders. Much has been made of this issue in the media, and in testimony before the legislature.

I hope to clear the waters by writing about the continuing misinformation about the dredging of shell from Man O War Shoals.

Why should the truth be important in the contentious arena of oyster politics?  Few subjects can bring out the hyperbole like oysters. Why should the public care if the most visible apex environmental foundation consistently mispresents the facts about oysters when testifying before the house Environment and Educational Matters Committee, as long as the rhetoric tickles the ear?  How is it that those Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) policy makers with PhDs are openly indifferent to the facts?

Why should the public care when one of the most heavily funded national sports fishing associations Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) backs its Maryland chapter and allows it to castigate the public fishery in testimony about Maryland’s resource issue? Why should voters be concerned that many delegates on that committee apparently don’t care they are being misled? Oyster issues are not as simple as the CBF and CCA would like you to believe. When simplifying issues, it becomes easier to overlook many connected aspects, of which one important part is the human cost. Over the years the CBF has sought to simplify the issues into “silos” for its members and the public. This is a great disservice to its membership and to the interested public. It seems the phony war is now over and the policy directors along with other groups are waging war on watermen. CBF policy pays lip service about respecting the lives, industry and culture of the commercial fishery as represented by watermen. That voice is now silent.

This bill to prohibit shell dredging did not get out of committee and failed to pass. That doesn’t excuse those who testified with falsehoods. Facts are hard things and do not go away. This bill’s sole intent was to stop a legally mandated project to grant a permit to further understand what happens to an oyster bar when shell dredging is done to it. There is already an abundance of information on this subject. If shell is the driving issue for the oyster issues in Maryland such knowledge is tantamount to solving the problem of dwindling amounts of shell.

So, I will go over the purposefully misrepresented testimony from CBF and CCA for HB1455 that would have prohibited the legally mandated dredging of oyster shell.

All arguments about dredging for shell, pro or con at this point are mostly academic. Yes, there are informed studies and if the proponents of the bill had bothered to read them, as I have, they might have decided to let what is in reality a 5-year controlled experiment continue. This bill is the last remnant of a series of events that started with the end of the longstanding shell program in 2006 due to special interest group opposition based on uninformed rhetoric, followed by a DNR resistant to restarting the program, that then resulted in Del O’Donnell submitting a bill to force the O’Malley/Griffin/Oyster Committee DNR to apply for a permit to restart the program, which now has resulted in HB1455 seeking to end it all again. That started in 2009 at an Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) meeting. It has eventually been distilled to just dredging for shell on Man O War in a five-year experiment. DNR, in my view, is only doing its legally bound duty in standing by this permit renewal. The reluctance is probably based on the fact that such shell dredging is at best a short-term solution. The department answered over 40 very detailed Corps of Engineer questions. Much of the information requested by the Corps was just not available. When the first set of questions were answered as best as possible the Corps came back with even more questions and again many were as equally unanswerable. DNR persisted, as seen in the summaries of various Oyster Advisory Commission meetings. Clearing the way for the permit to dredge will provide the means to have solid evidence about the effectiveness of shell dredging and how such a procedure affects an oyster bar. Till we have such evidence any discussion will be fraught with hyperbole, half-truths and falsehoods. Wouldn’t it be better to be able to move ahead with fact based constructive conversations that can produce workable programs?

The bill in its entirety can be found in the state archives. All testimony is available in the video archives also. I will first present the claims made in testimony by the CBF and CCA and then the verifiable facts about Man O War. My comments are in Italics.

It was claimed that the proposed area is a vital reef.  That is not accurate. Surveys on the area for proposed dredging showed ZERO oysters. Man O War isn’t a reef. Yet it was constantly referred to as a reef in testimony. A reef has a vigorous oyster population. A reef under the Bay Program is an area with at least 15 oysters per square meter. The Oyster Advisory Commission has discussed this definition and it is agreed upon by the CBF and the CCA, along with state and federal agencies. Man O War has ZERO oysters on the place proposed for shell dredging. Yet CBF and CCA when testifying at the hearing consistently called it a reef. These two parties have members on the OAC and should know better. The proposed area of Man O War is an underwater shoal of shells but is not a reef (a living entity).

It was stated that shells planted under the old program, 185 million bushels, are all gone. These would be shells planted on hundreds of places around the Bay. The loss of shells is only partly true. Many areas with old shells still have oysters and harvest and habitat. This means that shell planting is productive and has long term benefits.

CBF stated that if all of the shell went to industry plantings it would cover only 2% of public fishery bottom. By focusing only on fishery usage for the shells the CBF created an immediate negative bias. There was no mention of what statistic was used as the total acreage of fishery area used to run their calculations. Much of the acreage in fishery areas is not oyster bottom. It is actually sand and mud. Other fishery bottoms are shell but aren’t worked so they shouldn’t be included in the total area CBF used. These factors make for an inflated total acreage which would drive the percentage down and give an intentionally skewed picture. That is just CBF manipulating data for their own purposes. Also, all of the shell won’t go to the fishery. Most will go to sanctuaries, because that is where funding exists. When any shell goes into sanctuaries it is gone forever from any other active management purposes. The constant crowing by CCA and CBF about the many benefits of alternate substrates over shell leads me to conclude that sanctuaries shouldn’t receive any shells, but instead should focus on alternate materials, as long as long as the size and shape doesn’t prohibit future active management. Then the shells can be used for industry where it is crucially beneficial. Most shell comes from the industry to begin with and shucked shells used in sanctuaries come from oysters harvested by industry. Yet, these industry generated shells are mostly used for sanctuaries. Quite an insult when you think about all the hard work that went into shell from harvesting by watermen, only to be slapped in the face when having to watch it go into permanent exile in sanctuaries. If alternate substrates are so successful then all dredged shell could be divided up among oyster farmers and the public fishery. I also observe that the area of Man O’ War Shoals proposed for dredging is public fishery bottom, not sanctuary. So why are sanctuary interest groups saying that Man O’ War shells should be used mostly to help sanctuaries?

Shells last longer than 3 to 6 years, though testimony has said the value of shells is short term. It is proven that shells planted as far back as the 1990’s still have oysters and harvest occurring on them. The shorter time frame used for CBF, CCA testimony relates to Virginia oyster bars not Maryland. But CBF and other speakers did not provide that nuance or any information related to Maryland.

It was claimed by CBF that harvest off the planted shells would happen only twice. Then it was suggested the shells would be used up and useless for anything. This is totally incorrect and has no basis in fact. Shell plantings can produce oysters and harvest after two decades. The person who made the statement has never been out to see any old shell plantings in the company of people knowledgeable on the topic. Yet again, comments are made without any peer review or confirmation, and many legislative committee members appear to believe without question.

One of the speakers made it sound like the old shell program sent all the shell to VA. Some shells were sold to VA, a process approved by the MDBPW. Most shell stayed in MD. Oddly enough that policy of selling shell out of state was terminated two decades ago. So, the testimony was not even relevant to the proposed project. Again, manipulated testimony.

It would seem that the facts were so manipulated that legislators were purposefully misled about the Man O War five-year experiment. The alarming part is that few if any delegates questioned the facts, asked for any sources of information or asked about peer review of the CBF/ CCA testimony. CBF assumes because it is the loudest foundation that everything its speakers have to say will be swallowed whole sale without question. If a waterman tried to get away with that the CBF and CCA would be demand proof. His proof is in his years of verifiable experience. Now do not get me wrong. There are some watermen given to exaggeration which throws doubt on some aspects of given testimony. But not one waterman makes a “scientific claim”. There are harvest reports, annual surveys, and hands-on observed phenomenon that back up much of what they have to say.

The bill’s presenters created the overall impression that all of Man O War is going to be dredged. In fact, only a small portion is in the proposal. The amount is 5 million bushels out of a surveyed 86 to 100 million bushels available. Cuts will be made around the perimeter of the shoal, leaving most of the shoal un-dredged.  Once more the legislators did not seem to want to question testimony.

Watermen are unrealistic in believing that the 5 million bushels will be the beginning of an oyster industry recovery. If the experiment gives the go ahead to dredging of more shell, it would only be for perhaps 50 million bushels. Not a serious amount. A more realistic appraisal would be to wait and see what the experiment will indicate in hard scientific terms. But even if the whole shoal was to be opened for dredging, (which it will not be) the amount of shell will not be the hoped for saving grace. While there are many sources for shell in the Bay all parties had best start the search for a more proactive alternative substrate.

CBF stated that the shoal is the last 3-d reef in the Bay. This is so completely false that I find it amazing that no one questioned it. First off, it is not a reef and most oyster bars have a 3-d shape. 3-D refers to a bar having enough shell to actually have not only an outer dimension but one of height and depth. Any nautical chart will prove this. It is a fact that Man O War has a distinct 3-D shape but it is by no means the last oyster bar to be characterized as 3-D.

CCA claimed that the fishing would be ruined by shell dredging. More manipulation. Past studies of shell dredged areas show fish actually stayed in the dredge cuts and along the cut edges. Many charter captains and sport fishermen would purposefully hang around the Langenfelter dredge operation in the upper bay because rockfish would be found around that site when it was in operation. The cuts attracted some species of recreational fish. In addition to the observed advantages of cuts the targeted dredging proposed around the perimeter will leave a majority of the shoal intact for fishing.

The oyster harvest was cited as over 900 bushels, which is accurate. However, the impression was that Man O War was a productive area that was going to be dredged away. What wasn’t revealed is that the 900 bushels came from seed plantings and not Man O War natural recruitment. None of that productive area is in the proposed dredge area. The area proposed for dredging has ZERO oysters based on a detailed survey of the bar. Saying that the dredging would ruin a productive harvest area is just more manipulative commentary.

CBF stated if all the shell went to industry plantings, it would cover 2% of fishery bottom. First, all shells won’t go to the fishery.  Most will likely go to sanctuaries because that is where most of the funding exists. CBF’s theoretical scenario isn’t based on facts. Second the scenario focused only on the industry, which many groups oppose anyway. By only focusing on a fishery use for the shells CBF created an immediate negative bias. Third there was no mention of what acreage comprises fishery bottom was used as the total acreage of fishery area used to run the math. Much of that acreage in fishery areas is not oyster bar. It is sand and mud which is not good for seed planting.  This inflated total acreage would drive the percentage down and give an intentionally skewed picture. Again, more manipulative commentary given by both CCA and CBF. The professor emeritus from U. of M. did not once try correct the falsehoods given as testimony when he sat on the panel before the committee.

There is a blatant misuse of available information without recrimination when testifying before our elected officials. Why?  Again, I must ask, what is the end game? It can no longer be cloaked in Saving the Bay or conserving fish just for sportsmen and recreational fishermen. When watermen speak they do so out of years of empirical experience in the industry. Their testimony speaks to their industry-based concerns. It would seem that many others are predisposed to believe the claims made by the when the environmental community. How did this happen? Where are the requests for science and peer reviews? Not once did I hear a delegate question the claims made by the CBF or CCA. Just a simple request for the science would suffice. Livelihoods are at stake. There is an interesting middle ground where all contentious stakeholders come together.  All involved believe that any increase in the oyster population is a good thing.

Science is not a substitute for common sense but is an extension of it. –Ormand  

If anyone has questions about the application for the permit you can go to the link below. Please make sure you go to the most recent version from Feb. 2017. It is a 72-page document and will back up the points made about testimony and has much more information than the points covered in my posting.

http://dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/Documents/Attachment_1-Man_O_War_Application_revFeb2017.pdf

 

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Letters to Editor

  1. The headline on the article re dredging Man o’War Shoals leaves an unfortunate impression, but it did capture my attention when I saw “. . . False News by Marc Castelli.” The author of the article, Mr. Castelli, is not a direct stakeholder; he is one unselfish citizen well-versed in the issues vital to the Bay’s best interests. He gives much of his time, while organizations proliferate and compete for grants and donations.

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