- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Part of a southern Charles County waterway has been closed to clamming and oystering, while another section will be closed at certain times, the Maryland Department of the Environment announced last month.
The ban went into effect Aug. 20 after testing found high levels of bacteria in Cuckold Creek in Issue, a news release states.
Shellfish harvesting is banned from the creek’s source downstream to the mouth of Perry Branch. Perry Branch itself, and the rest of Cuckold Creek to the Potomac River, are open unless at least an inch of rain falls within any 24-hour period. Then shellfishing is banned for the next three days, the release states. The creek mouth has not received more than half an inch of rain on any day in September, according to a National Weather Service map, so the restrictions are not now in effect.
The restrictions do not apply to crabs.
The ban was triggered by a high average level of fecal coliform bacteria in Cuckold Creek water, across 30 samples taken at different times and places, said Kathy Brohawn, MDE environmental program manager. The bacteria, found in the guts of all warm-blooded animals, are harmless in themselves but imply the presence of human disease bacteria as well, she said, because their journey to the water starts with human or animal feces.
A median figure of 14 mpn, the “most probable number” of bacteria in 100 milliliters of water, will trigger restrictions, as will a 90th percentile level of 49, she said. Rain washes feces into the water, which is why some areas are restricted only after heavy rainfall.
An investigation didn’t reveal any specific cause of the pollution, meaning the feces come from diffuse, or “nonpoint,” sources, Brohawn said. The nearby Swan Point Wastewater Treatment Plant was not responsible, “but there are septic systems, farm animals. We didn’t see anything, no smoking gun that caused this change,” Brohawn said.
Brohawn said a closure could happen at any time of year, but Charles County Department of Health spokesman Bill Leebel said summer stresses the water.
“Literally there’s no ‘r’ in August, so you can’t eat oysters in August,” he said, referring to folk wisdom restricting oyster consumption to months containing the letter ‘r’ in their name. “Actually, I had oysters last weekend, but this is probably ... the worst, time of the year to harvest them, just because water temperatures are the highest and bacterial levels in the water are highest now. It’s good to let the shellfish go and let them flush out for a while,” Leebel said.
The health department was not involved in the closure, but Leebel researched the situation at the request of Charles County government, he said.
Commissioner Ken Robinson (D), who lives in Swan Point near where the creek meets the river, also has discerned a pattern.
“First of all, this happens every year. It happens every year because of the shallowness ... of Cuckold Creek, in the area that’s been targeted. The creek does not have any natural flushing ability and from what I’ve been told from the Department of Natural Resources and MDE, it’s a natural phenomenon and it was not related in any way to pollution,” he said.
Commercial fishermen do not venture into the closed area of the creek, meaning that the ban will have little practical effect, Robinson said.
“I’m looking at crab pots right now. That’s obviously safe. As for putting crab pots off piers, I know people do that, I know people do eat them. I’m not aware of anybody who’s had a medical issue,” Robinson said.
The closures protect human health and the reputation of Maryland’s commercial fisheries, Brohawn said.
“The reason we do this is to protect our shellfish industry and to maintain confidence that the product that comes from Maryland waters is safe to eat,” she said.