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Bay oysters escaped Sandy’s wrath, experts say

WASHINGTON — If there is any silver lining to the mayhem caused by superstorm Sandy, it’s this:

Maryland’s oysters, and the delicious holiday stuffing they make, are safe to eat.

Concerns loomed as millions of gallons of raw sewage leaked from the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant into the Little Patuxent River, and water poured from the Conowingo Dam into the Susquehanna River. But sources say this has had little impact on the fragile oyster population.

“This was a one-time event,” said Tom Zolper, Maryland communications coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “What seems to be more damaging is steady runoff. I wouldn’t want to go swimming for a week or two, but the oysters will be fine.”

The oyster has had a long, storied history in the Chesapeake Bay. What was once an abundant population was brought to near-eradication from the bay, but the oysters have rebounded through diligent efforts of municipalities and environmental interest groups.

“The good news for oysters is that we’re seeing some of the best mortality rates,” said Zolper, “which is an enormous success story.”

The oyster survival rate was 92 percent in 2011.

The dry year has mitigated the amount of fresh water that leaches from the bay’s tributaries, diluting the brackish water downstream where oysters live. This water also carries silt, which can smother oysters; and nutrients from runoff, which can lead to hypoxic dead zones.

“Fortunately, Sandy happened in a dry year,” said Bill Goldsborough, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s fisheries director. “A wet year, plus Sandy, may have been a problem.”

Although raw sewage is obviously harmful to the bay’s delicate ecosystem, the spillage from the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant was easily diluted by the Susquehanna River, said Mark Miller, press secretary for Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.

But besides volume, location also played a vital role.

“In terms of sewage outflow, the areas affected are not the areas with oysters,” said Steve Vilnit, the fisheries marketing director for Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The Maryland Department of the Environment “tested the water, which was fine.”

 

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