9 million baby oysters get new home in the Severn

River has received 100 million shellfish in past decade

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, 08/07/09

Pamela Wood — The Capital The crew of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Patricia Campbell plants millions of baby oysters into the Severn River yesterday, including, volunteer Clyde Miller of Virginia pointing the way, volunteer Kevin Green of Annapolis in the center and staffer Dan Johannes.

The giant pile of oysters on the deck of the Patricia Campbell gradually grew smaller and smaller as crew members guided the oysters onto a conveyor belt and through a spinning apparatus that sent them flying and plunking into the Severn River.

Five million oysters found their new homes at the bottom of the Severn River this way Wednesday afternoon, culminating a two-day planting of 9 million oysters by the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

This week's project brings the total amount of oyster restoration in the Severn to more than 100 million baby oysters over 10 years, when state and nonprofit efforts are combined.

Most of that 100 million has been planted in the past few years, and there could soon be plans to "scale up" the Severn restoration effort even more.

"That's what we need to do," said Bill Goldsborough, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It's starting to get us at the scale we need to be."

Goldsborough watched the planting along with Stephan Abel, director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a nonprofit group that coordinates the state's oyster-restoration efforts.

The two used a term that's not often used in the efforts to restore the beleaguered Eastern oyster in the Chesapeake Bay: optimism.

"We're pretty optimistic at this stage of the game," Goldsborough said.

For the past several years, discussions about restoring oysters have been largely focused on whether to bring in a nonnative species, Crassostrea ariakensis, also called the "Asian" oyster. There were scores of scientific studies and passionate policy debates over whether the Asian oyster was the future of oysters in the bay.

But now with the question settled - the Asian oyster officially was turned down - the focus is back on how to restore native oysters, Abel said.

"More has happened in the past two years than in 20," he said.

The state has an Oyster Advisory Commission that's working on a new game plan for oysters, which have suffered from disease, overharvesting and pollution. The current oyster population is estimated to be just 1 or 2 percent of historic levels.

The general plan is to split the bay into areas for traditional harvesting by watermen, areas for farming oysters and areas for restoration.

The Severn River is in contention as a focus area for restoration, Abel said.

The Severn has largely been closed to public harvest due to pollution concerns that make shellfish unsafe to eat, and it's a candidate for permanent "sanctuary" status.

The river is not very salty, which is a good thing and a bad thing: Low salinity means oyster-killing diseases don't thrive, but it also means little natural reproduction from year to year.

Restoration in the Severn and elsewhere will get a boost when an expansion of the University of Maryland's Horn Point Lab in Cambridge is complete. Horn Point produces the baby oysters, called "spat," that are used by the state, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others.

Also, the state Department of Natural Resources is working on new ways to find shell for restoration. Oyster shell is used as a base for oyster reefs. It's also used in the lab for free-swimming oyster larvae to attach to.

And this fall, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to use some alternative materials to restore 30 acres of oyster beds in the Severn. Those areas will be planted with baby oysters next year.

(Revised August 2009)