Oyster Restoration

A partnership is to bring oysters back to the Bay

I’m working on science that will make a difference in how the Chesapeake Bay I grew up on and I love can be improved.

Donald “Mutt” Meritt
Director, Oyster Culture Facility

It started with a call for change.

Diseases, harvesting, and poor water quality were devastating the Chesapeake Bay oyster, a key species that dates back centuries. 

In the summer of 1993, the state of Maryland brought together a panel of 40 experts made up of elected officials, organizations, and institutions like University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. This was the Oyster Roundtable, and its members’ mission was to address the troubled oyster population in Chesapeake Bay. Representing UMCES at the Roundtable was Donald "Mutt" Meritt, Kennedy Paynter, and Vic Kennedy.

That December they released a 30-page Action Plan for Oyster Recovery. The action plan detailed a series of critical next steps and laid the foundation for the restoration program now underway at Horn Point Laboratory’s oyster culture facility and elsewhere in UMCES and the founding of the Oyster Recovery Partnership in 1994.

Restoration partners also include:

Lessons & successes

There are several reasons for the culture facility’s successes over the years, including the partners in the restoration effort and the oyster culture team itself.

“I’m working on science that will make a difference in how the Chesapeake Bay I grew up on and I love can be improved,” Meritt said. “As a scientist, especially with UMCES, that should be the overarching goal of all of our research: Can it be used to help the environment? I think clearly what we’re doing here does that. I’m very proud of being part of building the program that’s allowed that to happen, and I’m very proud of my hatchery crew.”

Stephanie Alexander sets oysters on the pier at Horn Point Laboratory.

Meritt encourages the staff to be curious, and that’s led to some environmental lessons. Once, a question arose about how oysters land when they’re delivered to their restoration site, and some on the hatchery crew conducted an experiment. They cut a hole in a board, positioned it above a 12-foot by 12-foot tank, dropped the shells in one by one and recorded the results.

“It turns out that over 95 percent of the shells land with the cup side up. I would have never thought that. If you’re a spat and you’re on the side that lands up, you obviously have access to seawater going by you. If you land on the side that’s down, and you land on a substrate like mud or sand where you can’t get seawater to pass around it, you’re going to suffocate and die,” Meritt said.

The experiment showed the importance of the bottom where oysters are placed—exposed shell is best because it allows more water flow than a smooth base.

“The more flow you have, the better survival, the better growth, and the happier those oysters are,” he said.

He pointed to a garden: If plants need sandy soil, but are put in with clay, they likely won’t do well. The same is true of oysters, and every trial comes with a lesson that can make the hatchery better.

“The neat thing about science is not only will it tell you some of the things that you’ve learned, it will also point out to you the things that you need to learn, and I think there’s a lot more that we need to learn than what we already know,” Meritt said.

Breaking records

The oyster culture facility staff works every year to continually increase the number of spat on shell it can produce. In 2013, the facility and its restoration partners set a record producing more than 1.2 billion oysters. It was the first time any oyster hatchery nationwide has produced more than 1 billion Eastern oyster spat in a single season.

The Oyster Recovery Partnership successfully processed the necessary shell and deployed more than 700 million hatchery-produced oyster spat to Harris Creek as part of the innovative sanctuary program that year. The remaining 500 million spat were produced as part of a program designed to train watermen to produce oyster seed for use in their oyster farming operations or was used to enhance the public oyster fishery. Some production was also used as part of the Marylanders Grow Oysters program and by other conservation groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as part of their localized oyster recovery efforts.

With continued improvements of their craft, Horn Point has been able to break the record it sets. In 2016, it produced 1.78 billion spat on shell.