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Disease, habitat loss, overharvesting, and poor water quality have left the Chesapeake Bay’s iconic wild oysters in a dismal state, at just 0.3 percent of their teeming population in the early 1800s, according to a 2011 research study by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
Maryland Sea Grant Extension is working with its many partners to bring oysters back—by using aquaculture to cultivate the mollusk for food and restoration. Our programs:
We offer assistance and information to prospective oyster producers, business owners, commercial harvesters, resource managers, students, and educators.
Increasing the Chesapeake’s oyster populations is a high priority in Maryland. That is because of the creatures’ ability to filter vast amounts of water, improving its quality. And oyster reefs provide habitats for a variety of other fish, benefitting the entire ecosystem.
However, restoring self-sustaining populations of wild oysters to a significant level may prove difficult because of a host of ecological, economic, and cultural hurdles. For example, generations of Chesapeake watermen have harvested wild oysters from grounds scattered around the Bay. Encouraging the remaining watermen to embrace aquaculture—oyster farming at fixed locations—is a challenging proposition because this business requires a different set of skills and substantial start-up costs.
There are no easy fixes to these challenges. Maryland Sea Grant Extension plays an important role in promoting progress in collaboration with federal and state agencies, other university programs, and non-governmental organizations. Our key efforts are listed below.
Our Maryland Sea Grant Extension aquaculture specialist, works in cooperation with many partners to operate the Horn Point Oyster Hatchery, which cultivates young oysters for aquaculture and restoration projects. In 2017, the hatchery produced more than 1.7 billion oyster spat (young oysters that are attached to a larger oyster shell), a record. The hatchery works with its partners to distribute oysters for commercial aquaculture and to build up oyster reefs in the Bay.
Learn more about these projects on the hatchery's website.
Maryland Sea Grant Extension helps individuals and companies obtain financing and technical know-how to start aquaculture businesses in the Bay. An Extension specialist helps entrepreneurs to apply for low-interest loans from the state of Maryland. This program is targeted for watermen who want to transition from harvesting wild oysters to growing them through aquaculture; the money helps them to buy equipment.
Our resources include a spreadsheet and instruction booklet about remote setting, a technique for producing oyster seed from larvae. These materials help operators to evaluate costs and feasibility.
Maryland Sea Grant Extension also offers oyster hatchery short courses for those interested in working in a hatchery or in starting their own hatchery. In addition, Extension sponsors day-long shellfish conferences with other partners to provide detailed up-to-date information about starting and running an aquaculture business. Brochures and highlights from past conferences are included below. To find out about future courses and conferences, contact Eastern Shore Agent Don Webster.
Maryland Sea Grant Extension Eastern Shore Agent Don Webster has played a vital role in working to promote major changes in state policies that allowed significant expansion of shellfish aquaculture throughout the Chesapeake Bay. The legislation expanded the area of the Chesapeake Bay that can be leased for oyster harvesting and the categories of eligible lease holders. Learn more.
Read about local programs in oyster gardening. That’s where volunteers grow young oysters in cages suspended off docks and later donate them for use in oyster-reef restoration. Jackie Takacs, an Extension watershed specialist, assists with oyster gardening projects in Southern Maryland.
Maryland Sea Grant has published a variety of reports about oyster aquaculture and restoration:
Biofouling Control Strategies: A Field Guide for Maryland Oyster Growers. A field guide of plants and animals that can colonize oysters for identifying common biofouling organisms in the Chesapeake Bay. Produced by our Extension agents, it includes images of each species, along with where it's found, how it influences oysters and/or gear, and effective treatments.
Northeastern Regional Aquaculture Center aquaculture fact sheets (Maryland Sea Grant assisted with design and production of these publications)
Original productions by Maryland Sea Grant: