Outreach & Extension: Oysters
Contacts: Don Meritt, Don Webster, Matt Parker
Habitat loss, overharvesting, disease, and too much sediment have left the Chesapeake Bay’s iconic wild oysters in a dismal state. While restoring oyster populations to the bounty they once enjoyed may prove impossible, farming oysters could provide a crucial step in that direction. But oyster culture in Maryland remains controversial. Issues surrounding disease, the introduction of non-native oysters, and the harvest of cultured oysters have spurred discussion and debate throughout the Chesapeake Bay area. In short, there is no easy fix to the ecological, economical, and cultural challenges of oyster restoration.
Maryland Sea Grant Extension plays an important role in confronting these challenges by collaborating with federal and state programs, universities, and non-governmental organizations on oyster restoration and education activities. Maryland Sea Grant has joined an Oyster Alliance with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory, and the Oyster Recovery Partnership to teach citizens how to grow oysters in a variety of systems for reef restoration. In addition to fostering habitat rehabilitation, the Alliance also provides an effective means for educating a broad public about the ecological role of oyster habitats in the Bay and the impact of land-based activities on the health of these habitats. Working with CBF, Sea Grant Extension faculty train groups of Master Oyster Gardeners. This cadre of specialists works with local growers, assisting them with production, answering questions, and coordinating data collection. They upload data to a web site created by Maryland Sea Grant for review by faculty, which is then made available to others through graphs and charts.
Managing disease in oyster farms is a concern, just as it is in the wild. Extension aquaculture specialists participate in the Cooperative Regional Oyster Selective Breeding Program (CROSBreed), which assists in identifying facets of disease-resistant oyster breeding and selection projects, produces animals for use in planting trials, and assesses their ability to survive disease challenges.
For thirty years, Maryland Sea Grant Extension has also focused on shellfish aquaculture as a way to reduce harvest pressure on wild stocks and to provide seafood products and economic development to the Bay region. A 2009 report produced by the Sea Grant programs of Maryland and Virginia and commissioned by the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office details the history of shellfish aquaculture in the Bay and sets out current opportunities and challenges:
Shellfish Aquaculture Development in Maryland and Virginia: Economy, Employment, Environment (pdf)
Oyster Aquaculture Fact Sheets
Background Documents Prepared for the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission