Sewage Spill Prompts Health Warning
Turning a River Into an Oyster Factory

Birthplace of Billions for the Chesapeake Bay

Hatcheryexpansion A nursery for billions of baby oysters is being born.

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.

HatcherypierThe expanded hatchery, which will be able to produce 1.5 to 2 billion oysters a year, is part of Maryland's new initiative to try to restore the Chesapeake Bay's devastated oyster populations.

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.

HatcheryoutdoorsDr. Donald W. Meritt, who runs the Horn Point oyster hatchery, explained that production of more young oysters is an essential part of both the success of both underwater farms and sanctuaries.

“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.

AlgaetanksTo 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."

OysterhillIn 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.



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Does Virginia have anything similar in the works?

Also, Tom, I wanted to continue the discussion about broken glass as a potential spat habitat.

I hear you about the craziness of broken glass--it does seem like a strange idea, even to me. But then I think about the potential benefits. First, we can probably get our hands on a LOT of broken glass. Second, we could probably tumble it to smooth the edges a bit. Third, we could dump it only in protected reef growing areas where we don't want people wandering around and harvesting anyway.

I suggested glass because I was trying to think of a substance that has some similarity to oyster shell. It's pearly and smooth and hard. Of course, however, glass would only be viable if it turns out that spat like to stick to it. Might be worth an experiment....

Here's an idea: let's enlist our nascent aquaculture industry to assist the State with restoration projects. It's a win-win proposition: the State gets oyster restoration, and our infant industry is afforded a measure of stability that enables greater investment and growth... Everybody wins.

Glad to hear we are going to put most of the spat in protected areas. Never knew why we paid the sate to grow oysters and them let waterman take them and sell them for their profit. Why not buy out all the oysterman's licenses for 10 years or so (with a COL)at what they claim is their current income with the IRS. It would save the state more money that it would cost to grow oysters and we would have a lot more oysters IN THE BAY.

You know, BC, now that you describe your broken glass experiment, it sounds intruiging. There certainly is a lot of glass that needs to be recycled. I am not an expert, however, so I would suggest that before you start dumping glass anywhere, you consult with (depending on where you live) the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission or Virginia Department of Environomental Quality.

To Johnny Oyster Seed:

I heard you speak the other day at Governor O'Malley's press conference on oysters. You are certainly passionate about oysters, and your idea sounds interesting.

But what exactly do you mean? Please explain in more detail. Do you mean that oyster farmers would leave some of their oysters in the Bay to contribute to the "wild" population?

To John Koontz:

I think that what Maryland is trying to do is gradually transition watermen away from harvesting wild oysters and toward aquaculture. The state expands no-harvesting sanctuaries, increases enforcement of poaching, and offers training and incentives to encourage oyster farming. Over time, the state's theory is that it can move away from the hunter-gatherer model of oystering (which has been abandoned almost everywhere else around the world) without having a heavy hand and cutting off people's livelihoods all at once.

BC, to find out more about what is happening in Virginia with oysters, check out my colleague Chuck Epes' story at the top of today's Bay Daily.

Well Tom, that's not quite what I was attempting to convey in my previous message, but coincidentally you've managed to hit upon a notion that I've also been advocating recently - that is, encouraging our young industry to adopt a model of "paying forward" by donating some of their product for the public good (e.g. sanctuaries). Unlike the traditional wild-harvest industry, aquaculture has the ability to actually *create* oysters - and I would certainly like to see aquaculture distinguish itself in this fashion.

But back to clarifying my previous comment... My point was this: it seems that Marylanders have, by-and-large, unquestioningly accepted that *only* the State is capable of operating the "machinery" of oyster restoration. But in that line of thinking, we are completely ignoring an opportunity to approach oyster restoration efforts through a "divide and conquer" fashion. Rather than the *one* center of operation that the State now uses, this alternative approach would utilize numerous, *locally-based* operations to create and plant oysters in a "distributed" strategy.

Similarly, there is a common misconception that oyster farming is somehow totally distinct and disconnected from oyster restoration activities. In fact, much of the technology and knowledge-base is common to both disciplines; State objectives for oyster restoration could be accomplished by leveraging the assets and resources of the aquaculture industry. And by outsourcing some portion of State oyster restoration work to the private sector, we can help ***stimulate investment and growth in our nascent aquaculture industry***, which happens to be the second key objective of the Governor's new ORAD policy proposal for oyster management.

Currently, there *is* a commitment at both State and Federal levels to encourage the development of shellfish aquaculture as a major industry in the Chesapeake (as it is nearly everywhere else around the world). But how do we translate government dollars into real results? One way is to outsource some portion of oyster restoration work to our new aquaculture industry in a distributed or "tributary" strategy. At hand, we have a unique opportunity to accomplish *both* oyster restoration as well as stimulate the beginnings of a world-class aquaculture industry right here in Maryland... Let's not miss this boat.

Thanks - Jon (AKA Johnny)

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