You were living inside an oyster if you missed the story of the errant Ever Forward.

The Taiwanese-owned container ship slipped out of the Craighill Channel in March 2022, thanks to a Chesapeake Bay pilot more interested in his cellphone than keeping the 1,095-foot craft on course from Baltimore to Norfolk.

What you might have missed during the weekslong circus that followed, as crews unloaded and shifted the monster, was the collateral damage done when it plowed through the bottom of the bay off Gibson Island.

Oysters. The 11.5-acre Mountain Point oyster bar, to be precise, was wiped out by the 117,000-ton mistake.

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Now, almost two years later, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is ready for repairs. It will spend the $676,200 the Ever Forward owners paid the state to plant oysters across roughly 40 acres in Anne Arundel County.

Just not off Gibson Island — at least not right away.

That might be the opening act in the next oyster drama. Any expansion of oyster beds is good news, but the state is wrapping up a massive period of oyster reef reconstruction and there is bound to be robust debate over where to go next.

“If you’re if you’re gonna go through the exercise of fining the company that wiped out an oyster bar, then that should go back to where the damage was done,” said Paul Spadaro, head of the Magothy River Association and a member of the Anne Arundel County Oyster Committee. “This is like if somebody throws a rock at a church in Glen Burnie and they decide to fix a church in St. Mary’s County.”

In this case, the far-away church is Herring Bay. A tiny oyster sanctuary 25 miles from the site of the Ever Forward grounding, just this side of the county line, will benefit from the misadventure.

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In a Jan. 3 email to members of the oyster committee, DNR Shellfish Division Director Chris Judy explained that the Ever Forward payment — not a fine, lawyers will say — would pay for 12 acres of oyster planting in Herring Bay because it offers the best chance for their survival.

More, he wrote, will be planted across 29 acres of oyster beds around Anne Arundel that are open to commercial fishing. Those sites won’t be chosen until next month.

“Any fisheries policy, oyster, finfish or crabs, is going to cause rigorous debate among every stakeholder,” said Lynn Waller Fegley, DNR director of fishing and boating services. “And the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay is real estate.”

If you’re new to the subject of oysters as environmental policy, there’s a lot to shuck here.

A century of overharvesting and disease decimated Chesapeake oysters, once a major source of pride and jobs. By the 1980s, the population collapsed. Environmentalists, watermen and government officials in two states eventually paused their perennial bickering long enough to call for extreme rescue efforts.

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In 2014, the federal government, Virginia and Maryland agreed to work on 10 oyster sanctuaries in major bay tributaries. By the time the project is completed next year, they will have spent more than $87 million and poured 35 billion larval oysters, called “spat,” over oyster shells and other substrates in hopes that they latch on and grow.

The idea is that healthy oyster bars will provide fish and crab habitat, improve water quality by filtering algae, and promote the spread of underwater grasses. A whole economy has grown up in Annapolis around this idea, including scientists, nonprofits, locally planned restoration projects and even grow-your-own oyster kits.

The result appears to be good. This week, Maryland announced a rebound in young oysters not seen in a generation, even in places where that hasn’t been the story in 40 years. New numbers in Virginia point to a record harvest in the southern bay.

“This means good things for all of us, no matter where you are or what you do, because it’s that good for the bay,” Fegley said.

While she wouldn’t attribute the progress exclusively to the 10 big sanctuaries ― a few summers of drought has meant the water has been saltier and that’s good for oysters — she admitted some of it may be connected.

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“All of this work that we’ve done over the years, we’ve started to reap the rewards,” Fegley said. “It bolsters the idea that we need to keep going with what we’re doing.”

That could be the next oyster spat, an entirely different thing than the oozy larvae dumped overboard by the ton. Where?

One place is Herring Bay, a crescent of open water tucked between the hamlets of Deale and Rose Haven. It’s just a few square miles bordered by cliffs and marshes, fed by Rockhold and Tracys creeks and home to two of the state’s biggest marinas.

In 2019, Advocates for Herring Bay got permission from the state to try something new, planting a quarter-acre oyster bed on the site of a long-gone historic reef. Most other replanted oyster beds — including the 10 massive sanctuaries — are in sheltered rivers and creeks.

“We did this small bar as a proof of concept,” said Kathy Gramp, president of the small nonprofit group.

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It had some advantages. The sanctuary has higher salinity than river sites and is less prone to “freshets” — heavy rainfall floods that pour so much fresh water into rivers and creeks that oysters die. There is also enough room for the oysters to spread out and create self-sustaining beds, and maybe even make enough baby oysters that can be replanted elsewhere.

The Robert Lee, an Oyster Recovery Partnership, prepares to dump a load of oyster shell and spat into Herring Bay in May 2023.
The Robert Lee, an Oyster Recovery Partnership barge, prepares to dump a load of oyster and spat into Herring Bay in May 2023. (Mike Brewer, Advocates for Herring Bay)

Most of the project has been paid for by small fundraising and volunteer labor. It meant driving to the state oyster hatchery on the Eastern Shore and working in slimy tanks to gather up barrels of oyster spat, then getting them onto boats and dumping them overboard in the right spot.

“Now lots of restoration happens that way, but most citizen restoration does not happen that way,” said Birgit Sharp, co-coordinator of the project.

Today, 1 million oysters have been planted in partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Oyster Recovery Partnership and the Chesapeake Beach Oyster Cultivation Society. The reef is starting to expand on its own, and the group has started work to fund another three acres.

Another 60 million spat spread across 12 acres this summer, paid for by the Ever Forward, would be a radical expression of success.

The DNR will also work this summer across the Chesapeake in Eastern Bay, located between Kent Island and Talbot County.

In 2019, the General Assembly passed legislation directing the DNR to spend $1 million a year for 25 years building 40 acres of sanctuaries and another $1 million annually on 40 acres available for harvest.

“With all of the positives we’ve been able to show, it should continue to go in the direction it’s going,” said Ward Slacum, executive director of the Annapolis-based recovery partnership. “Once we wrap up these five tributaries, [in Maryland] we want to choose at least five more tributaries.”

That’s good, unless you’re an advocate for putting those oysters somewhere else.

On the Magothy River, just around Gibson Island from the old Mountain Point bar, Spadaro and his group plan to pay $40,000 to split a boatload of spat this summer with the Severn River Association. He’s worried that the state’s focus won’t help groups like his.

“Where does that leave us?” he said. “If this is where the state is thinking of going, where does it leave the river organizations?”