“We believe the Chesapeake Bay cannot be restored without the restoration of oysters,” said Tom O’Connell, director of fisheries services for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. He explained that oysters play a major role in filtering pollution. “Oysters alone can’t improve water quality, but they are an essential ingredient.”
The bay is the nation’s largest estuary, the lifeblood of Maryland and Virginia. It is a precious resource that shapes cultural identities — such as that of the now-threatened waterman — and the region’s way of life.
Maryland recently embarked on a new effort to super-size the oyster population, encouraging them to procreate like crazy by expanding their habitat, increasing aquaculture farming and setting aside larger river sanctuaries to protect them from harvesters.
O’Connell said the state is determined to improve on a previous effort. After spending at least $50 million in state and federal funds since 1994, according to O’Connell, Maryland has managed only to maintain a very small area of habitat suitable for oysters — 36,000 acres, a 70 percent drop from what it was 30 years ago. That failure dampens optimism that the historic oyster population can ever be restored.
The drive to go bigger on oyster restoration goes beyond Maryland’s program, which began with the opening of the harvest season in September. In the fall, the Army Corps of Engineers is expected to announce its Native Oyster Restoration Master Plan for the bay.
The master plan aims to expand oyster sanctuaries in both Maryland and Virginia from 450 acres to tens of thousands of acres by 2032, at a cost of $66 million, mostly federal dollars, according to the corps.
Where the magic happens
It all starts with the oyster and its offspring. Scientists who encourage them to get busy and prosper at the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory are trying to perfect 100-year-old aquaculture science. May to September is the optimum time frame to seed oyster reefs.
In that soothing warm water, clam-tight adult males loosen up and release sperm that floats on a current. The females respond by tossing out microscopic eggs by the tens of millions. Last week, Don “Mutt” Meritt, the hatchery’s director, scooped some up after they were fertilized.
Meritt oversees the development of a billion eggs in eight 10,000 gallon tanks at the hatchery. He babies them with a brew of homegrown algae until they grow into “spat” that are ready to attach to a hard surface. Meritt makes sure the surface is a shell — the building block of the reefs that the baby oysters need to survive and thrive as adults.