Oyster Recovery Partnership: Restoring Maryland’s Oyster Populations

On July 31st, 2012, a group of inpiduals spent the day learning about oyster restoration efforts in Maryland. The oyster restoration supporters took part in a fascinating tour of the Horn Point Laboratory Oyster Hatchery in Cambridge, MD. The tour was guided by a highly educated staff and led by Dr. Don Meritt, Director of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies and Stephan Abel, the Executive Director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

“The crown jewel of Horn Point is this oyster hatchery. It’s something we are all very proud of. It’s the largest on the entire east coast,” said Mike Roma, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Director.

Horn Point Laboratory

The Horn Point Laboratory is located on the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, near Cambridge’s historic town center. Situated on a pristine 880 acre campus, the Horn Point facility is located on an estate formerly owned by the DuPont family, a well-known name throughout Delaware and Maryland.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Oyster Recovery Partnership was commissioned as a cooperative coalition of multiple partners that contribute toward a large-scale restoration program that plants disease-free oysters back into the Chesapeake Bay. As a result of this successful Partnership, nearly 4 billion oysters have been planted on 1,500 acres of oyster reefs and more than 15,000 bushels of shell have been recycled to provide homes for new oysters. Now, Maryland’s leading nonprofit restoring oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, the Oyster Recovery Partnership operates the Shell Recycling Alliance, supports the State’s Marylanders Grow Oysters program, and provides aquaculture and fishery support services.

The scientists that work at the Horn Point location are known for their expertise in aquaculture, oyster and fish, and restoration of submerged aquatic vegetation and wetlands.  The laboratory is a leader in water quality research focusing on excess nutrients that can produce oxygen deficiency and harmful algal blooms.

Investigations that take place at the Cambridge facility extend from microscopic molecular processes to large-scale coastal analyses. The facility utilizes sophisticated field, ship-based, and underwater robotic technologies for data collection.

A Community of Oysters

The Chesapeake Bay oyster industry was the envy of the world until the oyster stock collapsed nearly 50 years ago due to disease, habitat loss, declining water quality, and historic over-harvesting. The Bay used to be filtered in just a day; now, it takes years.

A healthy oyster reef not only cleans our waters, but also provides crucial habitat for other marine life. Oysters create habitat for other important marine life – including the famous Maryland blue crab and prized striped bass.

“Small colonies or clumps of oysters are comparable to coral reefs. Other organisms need these oysters to survive. They need oysters to constantly filter their water,” explained Meritt while holding a large cluster of joined oysters in his hand.

“We should be celebrating the community that oysters create and not just the oysters themselves. Without oysters, we may not have the great, complex ecosystems we have today.”

“In my hand right now, there are 3.75 million oysters,” said Meritt as he held out a ball of brown muck wrapped in a damp coffee filter.

 

He then explained that these oyster larvae will be planted onto recycled oyster shells and distributed at sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

Since 1994, the ORP has successfully joined together state and federal government agencies, scientists, watermen, and conservation organization towards the common goal of oyster restoration. The Partnership has become one of the largest groups actively restoring oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Their restoration efforts have produced and returned more than 3-billion oysters into the Chesapeake Bay, resulting in the re-establishment of more than 70 oyster reefs on 1,500 acres of bottom.

Shell Recycling Alliance

In a world where the population has reached 7 billion, the Horn Point Laboratory is advancing scientific understanding of how humans can co-exist with healthy rivers, bays, and oceans. Our modern society should desire to provide a sustainable, healthy planet for generations to come.

Environmentally-responsible restaurants are donating their used oyster shells to ORP’s Shell Recycling Alliance (SRA) program. This initiative collects and recycles used oyster and clam shells from restaurants, caterers, and seafood distributors across the Mid-Atlantic region. Oyster shell is a limited natural resource that provides crucial natural habitat for new oysters to grow and is used exclusively by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Hatchery for its oyster setting process. Each shell recycled will result in approximately ten baby oysters being returned to the Bay.

“More than 35 restaurants across the state are participating in Maryland’s oyster Shell Recycling Alliance,” said Bryan Gomes, Manager of the Shell Recycling Alliance.

“Ocean City can boast having seven restaurants in this prestigious group.”

Ocean City SRA Members from the Ocean City area include:

  • The Bonfire Restaurant
  • Harrison’s Harbor Watch
  • Reflections Restaurant
  • Embers Restaurant
  • Higgins Crab House
  • Fager’s Island
  • Phillips Crab House

“The recycled oyster shells [collected at these restaurants] are transported to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Lab Hatchery to be reused and replanted into the Bay with small oysters, spat, attached,” Gomes added.

The SRA is hoping that more restaurants join in on the shell recycling program in months to come.

For more information, visit the Oyster Recovery Partnership on the web

From the Tour

These oysters have been grown in the labratory. They are constatnly monitored and cared for for research purposes.

Oyster larvae with ‘eye-spots’ and feet will be seperated from other oysters and introduced into a setting tank.

Eyed larvae are transferred to the setting tanks where they are attached to shells. After 48 hours, shells are inspected microscopically to see how many larvae are attached. At this point, they are now known as spat.

Oysters are spawned by scientists in this hatchery lab. After leaving these giant tubs, oyster larvae is place in tanks and fed cultured algae grown in greenhouses.

Cultured algae is created and monitored closely at the hatchery. The algaewill be fed to the growing oyster larvae.

In the algae greenhouse on site there are 18 tanks filled with filtered, sterile seawater. This is where the tiny oysters are fed.

Algae from local rivers and waterways is recreated in the labratory, then fed to oyster larvae at the hatchery. These brilliant green jars of algae are monitored closely.

“These green jars are really high in lipids,” said Meritt.

The larvae are fed four times a day.

Once larvae has successfully set, ambient water is fed into the tank and the spat begin to feed. Spat are then ready to be deployed to grown outside.

This is a tank filled with small, one-year-old ‘clutchless oysters. There are roughly 2,500 oysters living in this bin.

Clutchless oysters are brittle, hard to shuck, and grown on small particles of shells or nothing at all. They can be raised in trays fills with running water.

When introducted into the bay, they are snatched up by fish and crabs immediatly; too small and brittle to make it on their own before being gobbled up.

“Blue crabs eat these clutchless oysters like they’re popcorn,” said Meritt.

Oyster larvae is poured into setting tanks where they will affix to cleaned oyster shell. The resulting spat on shell will be extracted from the tanks and placed on a vessel and planted in pretreated oyster reefs around Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

Shells of spat sit in these large tubs before being loaded onto a boat. Water in the tubs circulates around the spat for feeding and growth purposes.

The shells will soon be loaded onto the “Robert Lee”, a boat used to transport the shells so they can be deposited in the bay.

Don Meritt has a motto, “More flow, more grow, more dough.”

When it comes to oysters, they have to constantly remain in moving water. The moving water offers circulation of food, nutrients, and reproductive materials. If these elements are constantly circulating around an oyster, the creature will take full advantage of it.

All of the recycled shells used at the hatchery are welcomed at the adequately named – shell pile. All shells are processed and cleaned at this location. They are left to sit in the elements for at least one year before being used in the hatching process. This guarantees that all old, decaying oyster matter has had time to decompose and leave the shell barren.

Recycled shells are poured into a machine that washes and rinses the material so they can be used as a ‘setting material’ for baby oysters in the future.

For more information, visit the Oyster Recovery Partnership on the web.

The Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP) is participating with the Oyster Recovery Partnership and is currently looking for people willing to grow oysters. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to eat these shellfish if you volunteer. You’ll have to give them back to the program. Contact Sandi Smith, MCBP’s Marketing Director, for more information (410-213-BAYS ).

Pictured in front of the oyster shell pile are Bill Mahoney, Sandi Smith, and Davonte Taylor of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

All photos by Ami Reist.

 

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