Ground Zero for Chesapeake Bay Restoration: Horn Point hatchery plays key role
in Maryland's oyster recovery program
Dec 03, 2015 10:12AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Photo courtesy of Oyster Recovery Partnership
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving the sea taste and the succulent texture…I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and make plans.” —Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
The lowly oyster, once a cheap source of protein for Native Americans and later a product that supported a segment of the seafood industry, is a mysterious creature—its craggy shell the vessel for a succulent morsel that has earned paeans through the ages, with Ernest Hemingway claiming that eating them could make him “happy.”
Oysters have recently risen to the top of the “trendy food lists,” featured on the menus of upscale restaurants from Blackwall Hitch in Annapolis to New York City’s iconic Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. Sadly, harvest of the Eastern oyster—so abundant in the 1800s that they were regarded as a nuisance—has fallen dramatically in the past few decades.
Fact is, oysters are not just for eating: they play a key role in cleaning the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay and providing jobs for watermen. They are so important that President Obama, with an executive order made on May 12th, 2009, tasked federal and state agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Commerce (DOC), Defense (DOD), Homeland Security (DHS), the Interior (DOI), Transportation (DOT), and others to develop a comprehensive Chesapeake Bay restoration plan, which includes replenishing 22 tributaries/oyster habitats by the year 2025.
The President’s executive order and the support of then-Governor Martin O’Malley reinvigorated Maryland’s Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP), created in 1994 to unify ongoing efforts to clean up the state’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay. ORP’s mission, according to executive director Stephan Abel, is to “restore the oyster population, clean our Bay, and preserve our future.” Abel is quick to credit the partners beneath ORP’s broad umbrella: the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) in Cambridge and home of the Horn Point Hatchery; the Maryland Department of Natural Resources; the Army Corps of Engineers; and the Federal North Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Add to this list the watermen and the individual citizens who participate by growing oysters at their waterfront properties and the restaurants who contribute their used oyster shells as part of ORP’s oyster recycling program.
These partners represent an army of dedicated scientists, interns, watermen, restaurateurs, and concerned citizens working together with a single mission: to bring oysters back to their native habitat in the Chesapeake Bay through aquaculture, not only increasing their market availability, but at the same time improving the water quality of the Bay and creating jobs for Maryland’s seafood industry.
Among the key players in the ORP partnership is Donald Meritt, Ph.D., program director of the Horn Point Laboratory’s oyster hatchery on the Choptank River in Dorchester County. The hatchery, the largest on the East Coast, is located on the 800-acre UMCES campus on land donated to the state in 1971 by Francis DuPont. Meritt is a native of the Eastern Shore who understands the culture of the watermen as well as the science behind what he calls “oyster culture.” He is a charismatic character, built like a linebacker, and prefers to be called “Mutt,” a childhood nickname.
Meritt led us on a tour of the Horn Point hatchery one December day, a time of year when the focus is on research as well as preparation for the labor-intensive next phase of oyster cultivation. While the hatchery’s busy season begins in late March, there is much to be done beforehand: formulating the special nutrients to nourish the larvae, cleaning the massive tanks, washing thousands of empty oyster shells (some recovered through ORP’s Shell Recycling Alliance) to be stacked by the ORP’s field crew for their 12-month-long “clean-up,” during which nature rids them of impurities and readies them for re-use as the surface for the spat produced in the hatchery’s laboratory.
March through September is the hatchery’s busy season, sometimes requiring 24/7 oversight of the painstaking process of creating algae, facilitating the “mating” of male and female oysters that produce larvae, settling the spat within a temperature-controlled tank, and, eventually, pouring the “spat water” over empty shells in cages where they will adhere to the hard surface and grow to maturity. Think of the hatchery as a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for baby oysters, providing the same kind of nurturing that fragile human babies require to thrive.
It’s a mysterious process, best explained by Mutt himself:
“Oysters are spawned in large groups, the eggs collected and fertilized, then distributed in large tanks where the eggs hatch and develop into larval oysters. These larval oyster stay in the tanks for 2–3 weeks, during which time they undergo several developmental stages until they reach the point where they are ready to ‘set’ or turn into spat. These setting stage larvae are then distributed to setting tanks which contain the shells from ORP’s operation. And if all goes well, they set and metamorphose into spat. At this point, they are deployed to sites where they grow to maturity…hopefully.”
The reproductive habits of the oyster population are unique. It only takes a single male oyster responding to “nature’s cue” by releasing his sperm into the water to cause the other guys to follow suit. This, in turn, cues the females to release their eggs for connection to the sperm, during which random fertilization takes place. The term “group sex” comes to mind.
From that stage, the fertilized embryo develops an appendage called “a foot,” using its natural adhesive to bond it to a hard surface—preferably an oyster shell, although some stick to the fiber glass and are scraped off. Shells from the setting stage are now ready to be piled onto the decks of a boat called the Robert Lee and under the direction of ORP to nine sites identified as hospitable for oyster growth. It will take three years for the spat to mature into a three-inch oyster, the size set by the state as “harvestable.” “Not all are intended for harvest. While some sites are, others are not,” Mutt says.
To get a grasp on the size of the spat, consider that a million of these minuscule organisms equals the size of a golf ball. It is survival of the fittest at work, although the evolution of the species itself has not changed over eons—one of nature’s many mysteries. A source of fossilized oysters, heavy in the hand and striated with multiple layers, was recently discovered in Florida.
Maryland imports some of these fossils to act as substrate on the bottom of the Bay and form reefs to support new oyster growth.
Some of Maryland’s oyster aquaculture is dependent on the spat grown at the hatchery, with amateur “oyster gardeners” and commercial businesses buying the product for deployment in their own beds. One of these is Patrick Mahoney, son of a longtime waterman and owner of Wild Country Seafood in Annapolis.
Mahoney’s oysters are legendary, grown in flourishing oyster beds he and his father, Patrick Mahoney Sr., cultivate in the Rhode River. The spat they buy from the hatchery will take three years to mature and be ready for market, but they are of superior quality. To taste for yourself, visit their tiny shop (check its website for seasonal hours) next to the Annapolis Maritime Museum—one of the city’s best kept secrets.
The most recent statistics show it was an encouraging year for oyster restoration efforts, although Maryland’s oyster harvests are still very low compared to a few decades ago. More than a billion Eastern oyster spat was produced at the Horn Point hatchery—setting a record among hatcheries nationwide. The ORP processed the necessary shell and deployed more than 700 million hatchery-produced spat to Harris Creek as part of its sanctuary program. The remaining 500 million spat were used as part of a program designed to train watermen to produce oyster seed for oyster-farming or was used as part of Marylanders Grow Oysters program and other conservation groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Marine biology and environmental science are fascinating fields of study for a growing number of the younger generation. The Horn Point hatchery nurtures this interest through its thriving summer internship program, with 6–8 young people chosen each year to participate. As part of Dr. Meritt’s team, they learn how oyster culture works, including algae and larvae stages, spawning, broodstock management, and deployment. They assist in all phases of the hatchery’s operation and may also help with scientific experiments under faculty supervision.
High school applicants should have completed at least their junior year and college applicants should have at least one year of course work in biology, environmental science, or a related field. Meritt says he personally reviews applications and has hired many interns after they complete their education. “Our interns have a valuable hands-on experience—they leave their shoes onshore and get their feet muddy but they learn a lot and have fun doing it,” he says.
Work at the UMCES Horn Point facility never stops. Researchers there lead the way to gradual restoration of oysters to the Bay by science-driven production methods and the use of technology to improve growing techniques and reestablish oyster reefs as part of the region’s underwater landscape.
“Our record oyster production is due to the dedication and hard work of hatchery director Don Meritt and his crew—and the wise investment of the State of Maryland and our federal sponsors,” says Horn Point Laboratory Director Mike Roman.
Educating the ordinary citizen is an important component of Maryland’s innovative oyster restoration project. Growing the number of “oyster gardeners” who utilize their waterfront properties to raise a new generation of oysters is important work. And so is the internship program at UMCES, which nurtures a new generation of scientists to continue the trail-blazing work of “Mutt” Meritt and his colleagues.
“Restoring the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay is a longtime project—and we need to nurture the young scientists who will carry on our crusade,” Meritt says.
How can Marylanders help restore the oyster population and clean the Bay?
The Oyster Restoration Partnership offers these suggestions:Eat: Eating oysters supports the local sustainable businesses that farm-raise oysters.
Recycle: Save your oyster shells. Each saved shell enables the planting of 10 new oysters. Visit www.oysterrecovery.org to learn where to bring the shells for recycling.
Get involved: Follow ORP activity on Twitter @oysterrecovery
Donate: Help build an oyster reef. Donations can enable the planting of thousands of oysters and may be made through www.oysterrecovery.org.