- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2007

CAMBRIDGE, Md. (AP) — The state’s largest oyster hatchery is due for an expansion this fall that could nearly triple the number of oysters put in the Chesapeake Bay each year, an effort that marks the evolution of the industry rescue effort from helping private growers to aiding the entire Bay.

At the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory on the Choptank River, work begins this fall on a new pier that will hold a $9.2 million “setting facility” — a place for baby oysters to set on shells before being dumped in the Bay. The lab now makes about 350 million baby oysters, or spat, a year, but officials say that number could increase to 1 billion a year once the expansion is complete.

The new oysters won’t come a minute too soon for an estuary where the oyster population is about 1 percent of historical levels.

“The oyster ecosystem has collapsed,” said Don Meritt, who runs the hatchery, overseeing oyster production from microscopic swimmers, to spat ready to enter the Chesapeake.

Oyster production is a complicated endeavor in which water temperatures have to be just right for reproduction to occur. Algae has to be raised to feed the oysters. They have to be monitored to see what gender they are — no easy task for a bivalve that can change its sex and has no external signs of gender. Then the fertilized eggs must be set on a shell until the oysters are grown enough to be put into the water. In the best circumstances, only half survive their first year.

Maryland has grown oysters in hatcheries for more than 30 years in hopes of reviving the native population. Mr. Meritt concedes the hatchery effort hasn’t done the job, but he’s optimistic that the state is embracing large-scale production, enough to help restore a species some have written off.

“Thirty years ago, we were looking at trying to help private oyster growers get maximum production out of their oyster leases,” Mr. Meritt said.

Now the focus has broadened to the oyster’s role in the Bay ecosystem. Oysters filter nutrients from the water and build reefs that provide habitat for many fish.

“We’re trying to restore an oyster reef ecosystem and all the associated ecological benefits of that,” he said.

Donald Boesch, head of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science at Horn Point, said the new lab will “remove a bottleneck” in the oyster hatchery. The lab can already make more oysters, but currently lacks room to let them set before putting them in the Bay.

“It’ll take it to the next level,” Mr. Boesch said of the expansion. “We want to make sure we’re having an impact on a scale that matters.”

The lab is also a testing ground for a disease-resistant Asian oyster being examined to see whether it should be put in the Chesapeake. Some say the oysters, Crassostrea ariakensis, would help revive the industry because they are resistant to diseases that have decimated oysters in Maryland and Virginia waters.

Study of the Asian oysters has gone on for at least four years in an attempt to satisfy concerns about the effect of introducing a nonnative species.

At the Horn Point lab, the Asian oysters are kept in a separate room marked “Quarantine Area,” where researchers are watching the oysters grow for testing. Mr. Meritt said the slow pace of research is “more of a political issue than it is a biological issue,” but that research will continue until scientists have satisfied the public that Asian oysters likely pose no threat to the Chesapeake.

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