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The Oyster Returns to Baltimore

Rodenhausen with oysterA native son came home to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor today. Television crews jostled for pictures.

The oyster is back.

And we’re not talking oysters on the half shell (probably imported from the Gulf of Mexico) served chilled with horseradish in nearby restaurants. We’re talking live oysters, working oysters, spitting oysters, the kind that can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.  

Oyster map.jpgThe first of about 40,000 baby oysters were lowered in cages into the dark waters next to the National Aquarium, thanks to a partnership between the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, and area students. Five “oyster gardens” around the Inner Harbor will nurture the fledgling bivalves over the next 10 months. Then they will then be placed on a reef near the Key Bridge. If the project is successful, the operation will be repeated in future years.

The program was kicked off with a press conference hosted by Will Baker, President of CBF, and Adam Lindquist, Coordinator of the Healthy Harbor project of the Waterfront Partnership.

Oysters in cagesBusiness leaders from around the Inner Harbor will build a total of 75 cages to hold the baby oysters, also called spat. Most of the cages will be built at a workshop Wednesday evening run by Meghan Hoffman of CBF’s Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side, Md. The Center grows oyster larvae into spat and helps them attach to old oyster shell or artificial structures. About 40,000 of those “spat-on-shell” will be placed in the 75 cages after the workshop and then distributed to the gardens.

Students from two nearby schools, Digital Harbor High School and the Green School of Baltimore, instructed business leaders at the press conference how to build the first eight of the cages. Both schools already have “oyster gardening” programs, in which spat-on-shell are raised in cages hung off piers and other structures in the Inner Harbor.

It was important for the public to see the new Inner Harbor oyster garden program at work. Hence the press conference. Speakers such as Baker and CBF’s John Rodenhausen explained to the crowd how oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. The recovery of the oyster population, now about one percent of its historic level, is a key part of the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. CBF raises and plants millions of oysters a year on protected reefs around the Bay.

Officials build oyster cagesThe business leaders who participated today are all active with the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which was formed in 2005. The mission of the group is to create an improved appearance and visitor experience in the Harbor. In 2010, the partnership launched the Healthy Harbor Initiative to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. The Waterfront Partnership also works closely with local environmental non-profits and the city government towards a cleaner and greener future for Baltimore’s neighborhoods, streams, and Harbor.

Before the Harbor was even a harbor it was home to oysters, possibly millions or even billions. Before dredging, the waterway was thought to have been only about 12 feet deep. Of course, the water also was clean back then.

Rodenhausen told reporters that in the time of John Smith’s journey around the Chesapeake there were so many oysters they could filter the entire volume of the Bay’s water in a week.

Oysters also produced tremendous wealth for Baltimore. In the 1800s canneries sprang up around the Harbor. The city was considered a center for oyster canning nationwide.

But pollution, overharvesting, and disease nearly wiped out the Bay’s oysters. Now they are coming back. Scientists say after decades of living on the edge, the oyster population is showing clear, positive signs. So is the Bay itself, with pollution cut back significantly, but still not nearly enough.

The lowering of the baby oysters into the Inner Harbor yesterday was a hopeful sign that we are making progress. If they can make it here, they can make it everywhere.

By Tom Zolper

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photos by author.  Map from Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore.  Photo at bottom shows CBF’s John Rodenhausen helping business leaders from Brown Advisory, BGE/Constellation Energy, and Legg Mason to build oyster cages.)



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