On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a $10 million construction project is under way to expand the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Horn Point oyster hatchery, to roughly double its capacity.
Workers with bulldozers and cranes are building a 300 foot long pier out into the Choptank River, near Cambridge. On top of the pier, laborers are assembling a lab building and 52 water tanks, each big enough to hold 4,000 gallons.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation works as a partner with the Horn Point hatchery, using oyster larvae produced there and elsewhere in oyster restoration projects across the estuary.
Once so common their reefs stopped sailing ships, oyster populations have plummeted to a tiny percentage of their historic levels, in part because of over harvesting, pollution and disease. And the loss of these reefs has deprived the Chesapeake of filter-feeders that clean the Bay, and has removed important habitat for fish, crabs and other life forms.
On Friday, Governor Martin O'Malley announced the proposed creation of 9,000 acres of no-harvesting sanctuaries to protect about 25 percent of the remaining productive oyster reefs from harvest. The state is also trying to encourage oyster farming as an alternative for watermen, by opening up 600,000 acres of Bay bottom for private leases to aquaculture businesses.
“Just setting aside the sanctuary is maybe a nice first step, but you need to have some plan for that sanctuary – or that harvest bar, or that oyster farm,” Dr. Meritt said.
And Dr. Meritt’s plan is to help the state plant boatloads of baby oysters.
He showed me how he and his colleagues breed them.
First, they take oysters from the Bay and other locations. Then they put them in black trays, douse them with water at about 80 degrees Fahrenheit and introduce a small amount of oyster sperm and eggs. This triggers all the mollusks to spawn at once. "The party has started," Dr. Meritt says.
After fertilization, the microscopic larvae grow in huge tanks. Some of the larvae are taken to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side, Maryland, where they are grown and then transplanted onto sanctuary reefs in the Bay or oyster gardens that volunteers tend beside their piers.
To feed the oysters, Dr. Meritt and his colleagues grow large jars of orange and green algae. They are lined up on shelves, with tubes curling into them, like the components of a moonshine operation. "This is our baby food factory," Dr. Meritt explained.
After the young oysters grow, technicians suspend old shells in the their tanks so the babies –- called spat -- can anchor themselves to a hard base, which they need to survive.
Huge piles of old shells, purchased from shucking houses, rise outside the Horn Point facility. "We are going to need more shells. It's an issue that we have to deal with," Dr. Meritt said. "If you are going to rebuild oyster populations, you are going to need some kind of hard substrate to rebuild the bottom."
In the past, most of hatchery bred oysters were planted in areas of the Bay where watermen could harvest them. But on Friday, Maryland Fisheries Director Thomas O'Connell said that this distribution of hatchery oysters is changing to give more of a boost to protected areas and farms. "The majority of the oysters are going to be used in the sanctuary program," O'Connell said. "We are trying to transition the industry" away from harvesting government-planted oysters, and toward aquaculture, he said.
Breeding oysters in hatcheries is, in many ways, nothing new. Billions of hatchery-bred oysters have been planted in the Bay over the last three decades, yet the overall population of oysters has remained very low. The state even tried smaller, more scattered sanctuaries in the 1980’s and 90’s.
Dr. Meritt explained why past restoration efforts did not spark a Bay-wide rebound. “It’s a big Bay out there," he said. "Billions of oysters in an estuary the size of the Chesapeake Bay is a tiny drop in the bucket. Locally, we have seen some really really nice populations that have been restored by our efforts. Unfortunately, most of those have also been stolen by illegal harvest activity. ...At least 75 percent of the populations that reach market size have been poached. I hate to use the word poached – they’ve been stolen, they’ve been illegally harvested, it’s theft.”
To combat this problem, Maryland officials have pledged to protect the new sanctuaries with radar, cameras and patrol boats. "We will provide 24/7 surveillance of the Bay," said O'Connell, the state fisheries director.
The state has launched a pearl of a plan for the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay oyster. Hopefully, it will survive the sometimes rough neighborhood under the waves.