Record number of oysters planted in Chesapeake Bay this year

October 10, 2023
Governor Wes Moore announced that more than 1.7 billion new juvenile oysters have been planted on sanctuary and public oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay this year, surpassing an ambitious 2023 planting goal and setting a new annual record.

Governor Wes Moore announced that more than 1.7 billion new juvenile oysters have been planted on sanctuary and public oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay this year, surpassing an ambitious 2023 planting goal and setting a new annual record. The milestone means that the state has planted almost 7 billion oysters since launching its large-scale oyster restoration strategy in 2014 with the help of numerous partners. 

“Planting 1.7 billion oysters this year shows the success of the broad partnership of watermen, scientists, academics, nonprofits, and state and federal government officials dedicated to this vital natural resource and economic driver for Maryland,” said Gov. Moore. “I’d like to thank the partner organizations and our dedicated Department of Natural Resources staff who enabled the state to achieve this significant accomplishment.”

Oysters for the five-large scale restoration tributaries are grown primarily at University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s oyster hatchery at the Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge. One of the largest on the East Coast, the hatchery produces oyster larvae for use in oyster research, restoration, industry, and educational projects.

“Our scientists have been working hard to optimize the production of oysters at our Horn Point hatchery, and it’s paying off. Working with our partners in this effort, combined with good weather and good water quality, this record level of oyster production is being realized,” said University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Interim President Bill Dennison. “We continue to use good science to understand the oyster biology and ecology to support restoration of this key species in the Chesapeake Bay."

Hatchery Manager Stephanie Alexander shows off oysters grown at Horn Point for the restoration effort.

The hatchery partners with the Oyster Recovery Partnership, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, NOAA Fisheries Service, and the Baltimore District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to spawn and set oysters to deploy to Chesapeake Bay waters in the hopes of slowing oyster decline and restoring the health of the Bay.

“Mother nature was in a fantastic mood this year. We have a great hatchery team, had great salinity, and we were able to start spawning in March with larvae growing really well,” said Oyster Hatchery Manager Stephanie Alexander.

In 2014, Maryland, as part of the interstate Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, committed to restoring oyster populations in five Bay tributaries. Maryland embraced oyster plantings as a key component of its Chesapeake Bay restoration and replenishment strategy, deploying hundreds of millions of juvenile oysters on both sanctuary reefs and public oyster reefs annually.

Oysters are beneficial because they filter excess nutrient pollutants from the bay, provide valuable habitat for other marine species, and boost the state’s commercial seafood industry through annual harvests and oyster aquaculture.

“In recent years, we’ve seen several good natural spat sets for oysters, which have boosted the bivalves’ overall population as well as economic returns for harvesters and growers,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz. “Oyster planting efforts have enabled us to work toward a broader goal to increase the species’ population in Maryland for their ecological benefits.” 

Of the 1.7 billion oysters planted so far this year, 1.03 billion were planted in oyster sanctuaries targeted by the state for large-scale restoration; 112.61 million were planted in smaller sanctuaries in Anne Arundel and Queen Anne’s County; 212.4 million were planted in the Eastern Bay region sanctuaries for the Department of Natural Resource’s Eastern Bay Project; and 455.25 million have been planted on public oyster grounds throughout the state.

“It took three decades to plant 10 billion oysters in Maryland, and half of that was completed in the last decade,” said Oyster Recovery Partnership Executive Director Ward Slacum. “To achieve meaningful results for the Chesapeake Bay, we must be unyielding and this year’s planting rate is a positive sign that Maryland is committed to Bay restoration.” 

In 2023, the state also worked with several other partners to raise oysters for planting in sanctuaries, private leases, and on public oyster harvest grounds. These include the public participants in Marylanders Grow Oysters and Oyster Gardening initiatives, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, County Oyster Committees, Severn River Association, ShoreRivers, numerous other river associations, the St. Mary’s County Watermen’s Association, and several private spat producers.