Science Feed

What Is Your Favorite Oyster Reef Critter?


"Of All The Exciting Species Living On Oyster Reefs In Maryland Waters Of The Chesapeake Bay, Pipefish  Are Mesmerizing And Just Captivate My Attention!"- Meghan Hoffman/CBF Staff

These small fish, related to seahorses, can be found hiding among oyster shells and underwater grasses in the Bay. Each oyster season I get exhilarated when I come across the Northern Pipefish as I lift an oyster cage out of the water, it is very rare to see 2 or 3 sightings! After a few moments of joy, then show and tell with other staff and volunteers, we all bid the pipefish farewell. If you have never had the pleasure of holding one in your hand, it can best be described as holding a squirming twig, it's unlike any other Bay critter and seeing one always make my day!

Pipfish_joe renyoldsPhoto by- Joe Reynolds

 "A little known fact about the pipefish is that it can move each of its eyes separately, although we don’t know exactly how this helps it."- Rugters Discover Fish Field Guide


"Blennies are my favorite Bay critter! I think they are so notorious and they look like little old men. Unlike other small fish around oyster reefs that hide, a blenny has no problem attacking your finger or any other fish that moves into its house!" -Carmera Thomas/CBF Staff

Blennies_bay.netPhoto by- Chesapeake Bay Program

An oyster reef is not complete without its own version of the mafia; "the blenny," is a species that always keeps order around the reef. Two different species (feathered and striped blenny) are predominate in the Maryland tributaries of the Bay. These fish grow to about 4 inches in length and are very feisty when you enter ‘their’ territory. These active fish will dart out, flair open their mouths and puff up their bodies to let humans and other critters to stay out of their neighborhood. They even try to put up a fight out of the water. Good news is, they don't pose any immediate danger to humans, they are all bark and no bite! 

Skillet Fish

“The first time I picked up a skillet fish it attached to my hand, which was a little terrifying, but I grew to enjoy finding them among the oyster cages and they are now my favorite critter. The Skillet Fish is the most resilient and interesting critter found among oyster reefs in Maryland. ” - Emily Rieck/CBF Oyster Intern

Skilltetfish_vimsPhoto by- Virginia Institute of Marine Science 

A skillet fish's most unique feature is its sucker! How many fish can top that? Evolution modified its pelvic fin into a sucker, what a stand out feature. If you have every tried to remove one from a fish tank or your dock they are tricky and determined to stay put.  Its almost cheetah-print like pattern is beautiful. This pattern allows the skillet fish to camouflage itself in shallow water, to hide and survive in the reef. 

Skilletfish_disk_vimsPhoto by- Virginia Institute of Marine Science

American Eel

 “Let’s be honest, the American eel is the most patriotic fish on the oyster reef.” –Ray McClain/ Chesapeake Conservation Corps Volunteer, CBF

Illustration by- MD Department of Natural Resources, 
Duanne Raver

What is so great about the American eel? Well, besides having “America” right in its name, this slippery fish lives a quite mysterious life. The American eel is one of the few fish species that is catadromous (living in fresh water but migrating to saltwater to breed). While the eel lives in the more freshwater areas of Chesapeake Bay, every January this mysterious creature will swim out to the saltwater of the Sargasso Sea to spawn at depths near 6,000 feet. If that is not cool enough, this fish can breathe through its skin!

--Meghan Hoffman with contribution by Emily Rieck, Carmera Thomas, and Ray McClain 

Record Season for CBF's Maryland Oyster Restoration Center

ORC Good photo
CBF’s Maryland Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side (Photo by Karl Willey/CBF Staff)


Two Week Old Spat On Shell
Several of the 23 million ‘spat’ produced this year at MD’s Oyster Restoration Center. At this size approximately 2 weeks old they are placed our on a sanctuary reef to grow immediately they start to improve water quality and provide 3-dimensional habitat (Photo by Meghan Hoffman/CBF Staff)

At Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side, Maryland it has been a recording setting season, with just over 23 million ‘spat’ (baby oysters) seeded on oysters reefs between May and October. Typically the center averages a ‘spat’ production between 15-18 million. We are ecstatic with this season’s numbers and the health of the young oysters being placed on sanctuary reefs throughout Maryland’s waters in the bay. Our success each season is due to the hard work and dedication of our volunteers


CBF Staff and volunteers about to seed ‘spat’ on shell on an oyster reef (Photo by Meghan Hoffman/CBF Staff)


At the Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side, MD, we are especially indebted, as much of what we do would be nearly impossible without the help of our volunteers. Whether they have given us their time for year, a matter of weeks, or for just one event each and every one is an integral part of what makes the work we do possible. Many come from different backgrounds of discipline and are experts in varying fields, and each provides their own invaluable knowledge to the oyster restoration program.


2012 ORC Restoration Focus Areas
CBF’s MD Oyster Center’s 2012 Oyster Restoration Focus Areas


This season MD’s oyster restoration efforts were focused in the Choptank, Severn, and West Rivers. All of CBF’s projects in Maryland waters occur in sanctuary (non-harvest) areas as designated by Governor O’Malley.  After building or re-seeding existing reefs CBF’s oyster team monitors the health of our reefs checking for density, survival, natural ‘spat’ set, and presence of disease. The monitoring data is very encouraging; generally the reefs after one year have better than 75% survival rate. That is great news for the Chesapeake Bay. Check out what is going on below the surface.  The learn more about our program please visit our website. If you have any questions or want to volunteer please contact

Toadfish With Mature Oysters
A Toadfish blending in among healthy mature oysters in Choptank River (Photo by Michale Eversmier)
Black Sea Bass With Reef Ball In Choptank
This oyster reef in the Choptank River is healthy and thriving. Rare sighting of a Black Sea Bass in Maryland waters, yet another signs restoration is working (Photo by Michale Eversmier)

--Meghan Hoffman









CBF's Yearly MD Oyster Gardening Trip To Horn Point ('Spat' Attack)

This year’s annual trip to Horn Point Lab/ Hatchery (HPL) was on August 22nd, 2012 in Cambridge Maryland to pick up CBF’s supply of ‘spat’-on-shell bags for MD’s Oyster Gardening Program, was nothing short of a great success.  Half the volunteers arrive by land and the other half by sea, in a united effort with the help of the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s Work Crew to empty two tanks of shell bags, slinging oyster muck at one another in the process. Within minutes of the first bags are being lifted out of the tanks, and passed along an assembly line of people to their temporary home of wooden pallets, the mud starts accumulating on the volunteers’ gloves and more!  IMG_3292

 Before you know it, the group has broken a sweat and volunteers have fallen into a rhythm of passing shell bags from the tank onto the pallets; which engages a friendly competition between the two tanks. The mission is to see who can (light-hearted friendly competition) empty a tank of approximately 600 ‘spat’-on-shell bags first.

1200 ‘spat’-on-shells bags later, divided into 24 pallets of 50 bags a piece, the mission is complete. The towering pallets are transported by bobcat down to the docks. Using the crane on the deck of RV Patricia Campbell  all 24 pallets are lifted and stacked aboard her deck, soon to make their way back across the Bay to Mill Creek and Harness Creek (CBF’s oyster nursery locations). 

Part two of the journey is about to begin, but not before Stephanie Tobash Alexander, Oyster Hatchery Manager at HPL,  is kind enough to give CBF staff and volunteers a tour of the hatchery. During the tour we are guided through the lab where oysters are spawned and larvae is collected.   Each year the hatchery produces oyster larvae from May until late August/ early September; batches of several million larvae are sent throughout the state for restoration and commercial use.  Prior to leaving the lab every batch of larvae is reared in tanks. During their larval stage which lasts 10-14 days computers and scientists monitor their health and growth. The tanks are periodically drained and the larvae are sorted by size. IMG_3347

The hatchery continually cultures 4 different strains of algae to feed the larval oysters. With the integration of technology all the larvae batches can be fed unique blends of algae every several hours, even during weekends and holidays when staff isn’t present. This unique system allows the larvae to be constantly fed ever several hours dramatically reducing their stress. Healthyand “happy” batches of larvae have higher setting efficiencies (higher ‘spat’ counts per parent shell) than batches which experience stress during their growth (lack of food, changes in water temperature or salinity).  All the larvae used at CBF’s Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side, Maryland for our spat on shell and spat on reef ball projects come from HPL.

After the tour, CBF and some volunteers, make the trip back across the Bay to deposit the spat bags into two different rivers. This is the second part of the day. The RV PatriciaCampbell’s first stop was at Greenbury Point in Mill Creek. This is the nursery location of MD’s Oyster Gardening program. IMG_3371
The oyster ‘spat’ will continue to grow and thrive here while they wait to be handed out at upcoming events this fall.  The second stop is Harness Creek in the South River to deposit 150 spat bags in partnership with South River Federation’s Flood Bucket Program. A founding member and current board member of the South RiverFederation, JohnFlood devised a system of growing young spat in 5 gallon paint buckets suspended underwater with numerous holes drilled to provide flush and exchange of nutrients.

After a long, fun and messy day, the trip finally ends back at the Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side. This annual trip is a great way for volunteers to be involved with oyster restoration; to hear more about theMD Oyster Gardening Program and continued restoration efforts in Maryland and Virginia as a whole. If you want to get involved in CBF’s MD Oyster Gardening Program, please register to attend one of our workshops this fall and fall in love with oysters and vibrant life that call their reefs home.  

To learn more about our oyster restoration efforts, visit our website.

To sign up to attend a fall oyster gardening workshop vist our MD Oyster Gardening website.


 (Photo One:CBF's MD Oyster Team & Volunteers at Horn Point Pre Oyster Muck. Photo Two:Staff and Volunteers Passing Spat On Shell Bags From Tank To Pallet. Photo Three: Volunteer Llyod Lewis on Deck PC With 2400 Bags Of Spat On Shell. Photo Four: Stephanie Tobash Alexander Explaining How HPL Hatchery Operates. Photo Five: Sterile Algae Cultures Which Feed The Oyster Larvae At HPL Hatchery. Photo Six: Unloading Pallets At Mill Creek Oyster Nursery. (Photo exception taken by  Nikki Smith/CBF Volunteer) Photo Seven: CBF's MD Oyster Team & Volunteers at Horn Point Post Oyster Muck. All Photos by Meghan Hoffman/CBF Staff.

-- Meghan Hoffman with contribution from Carmera Thomas