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Maryland’s plan for oyster restoration on lower Eastern Shore challenged in court

A judge temporarily blocked an oyster restoration project in Somerset County after local leaders filed a motion to halt the construction of artificial reefs in the Manokin River last month, and the court battle could delay the project further if a preliminary injunction is granted.

The case pits the Somerset County Board of Commissioners against the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which wants to build more than 400 acres of reefs in the river and seed them with oyster beds. 

The county commissioners filed their lawsuit on Oct. 28 in Circuit Court. A judge granted a temporary restraining order on Nov. 9. The order expired on Friday, but the lawyer for the county, Kirk Simpkins, has filed a motion to extend it and hold a hearing for a preliminary injunction.

Simpkins told The Daily Record that “the complaint speaks for itself.”

A spokesperson for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which is representing DNR in the suit, declined to comment because the litigation is ongoing. 

In their complaint, the Somerset County officials argued that the artificial reefs DNR wants to build would “make it impracticable, bordering on impossible, to harvest oysters in Somerset County. The plan will have an equally devastating impact on on other fishing, including crabbing, in Somerset County.” 

The state named the Manokin River an oyster sanctuary in 2010, making it illegal to harvest oysters there. The river is now “one of the most productive oyster grounds in the state of Maryland,” according to the complaint.

But the pause on oyster harvesting was intended to be temporary, the complaint claims, until the state selected the Manokin River for the Maryland Oyster Restoration Project in 2018.

The project would use granite and other materials to construct artificial reefs — a practice that the complaint claims would inhibit fishing and crabbing by causing fishing lines to become stuck on the stone river bottoms. The complaint alleges that the reefs could scrape or ground vessels that are trying to navigate the river.

The board of commissioners also argue in the complaint that the Manokin River was not initially selected to be part of the oyster restoration project but was added as a replacement to Breton Bay, an area on Maryland’s western shore.

The temporary restraining order issued earlier this month states that it appears “immediate, substantial and irreparable harm” will occur if the project proceeds before there can be a full hearing in court.

The order blocks the state from starting the restoration project and from acting as if it has “assumed ownership and control of the Manokin River.”

The Attorney General’s Office filed a motion to vacate the temporary restraining order last week.

The motion largely addresses procedural concerns about service of the restraining order. It also claims that Somerset County is precluded from asserting a position “contrary to the interests of the state” in court, and that the state owns the land that lies below Maryland’s tidal waters.

As of Monday afternoon, no ruling had been docketed on the county’s motion for a preliminary injunction hearing and an extension to the temporary restraining order.