Oysters 101

Oysters are an important component of the living ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. These tiny creatures have a big impact both on ecology and economics.

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science has been dedicated to protecting the species and helping it thrive in the Bay. Our Horn Point Laboratory is home to one of the largest oyster hatcheries on the East Coast. The oyster culture facility produces a variety of oyster larvae for use in research, restoration, and educational projects.

But why do we place such an emphasis on oysters? Simply put, they have a lot of benefits. Here’s a few:

  • They filter water. This Bay vacuum cleaner removes organic and inorganic particles from the water column resulting in cleaner water and healthier peer species. A single healthy oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day.
  • They create habitat. The presence of their shells creates a hard bottom substrate that offers a home to other bay organisms who depend on it to grow. Some examples include barnacles, mussels, and anemones. Oyster reefs also provide shelter and spawning areas.
  • They boost economy. Oysters provide a market for food and a way of life for many watermen of the Chesapeake Bay.

Oysters have a longstanding relationship with Chesapeake Bay. At the end of the 19th century, it was estimated that more than 15 million bushels of oysters were being harvested annually from the Maryland portion of the Bay. Over time, their population declined due largely to overfishing and disease. In recent years, UMCES has been a leader in restoration efforts and recently launched OysterFutures, a partnership between scientists and watermen meant to find balance between the ecological and economical values of the oyster.