Maryland Seeks Haven To Refresh Oyster Habitat

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Pete Terry of H.M. Terry Co. opens an oyster on Willis Wharf, Va. i

In a 2009 photo, Pete Terry of H.M. Terry Co. opens an oyster on Willis Wharf, Va. Neighboring Maryland is drawing up plans to set aside 25 percent of all oyster habitats in the Chesapeake as permanent sanctuaries where harvesting would be banned. Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot/AP
Pete Terry of H.M. Terry Co. opens an oyster on Willis Wharf, Va.

In a 2009 photo, Pete Terry of H.M. Terry Co. opens an oyster on Willis Wharf, Va. Neighboring Maryland is drawing up plans to set aside 25 percent of all oyster habitats in the Chesapeake as permanent sanctuaries where harvesting would be banned.

Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot/AP

The Eastern oyster once dominated the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia. Now the bivalve is barely hanging on.

The state of Maryland is drawing up plans to set aside 25 percent of all oyster habitats in the Chesapeake as permanent sanctuaries where harvesting would be banned. Scientists and environmentalists insist that if oysters can just be left alone, they might start to come back — and bring a whole bunch of other creatures with them.

That's why divers were at work under the murky water of Maryland's Severn River recently, looking for oysters that they planted five years ago at a spot just off the bay. It takes several minutes to find any.

There was a time when the water was crystal clear. You didn't have to search much for oysters. You could practically trip over them.

In fact, early explorers considered them a navigation hazard.

When he sailed the bay in 1607, John Smith wrote that reefs were so high they stuck out of the water.

But by 1920, three-quarters of the bay's reefs had been wrenched from the water and harvested for meat. Old photos show piles of shells hundreds of feet high.

Even so, there used to be a few places where oysters still thrived even 40 years ago.

"When I was a kid, oyster reefs were everywhere," recalls biologist Don "Mutt" Meritt, whose lab at Horn Point planted the oysters the divers were trying to find. "Back in '72 or so, the minute I put my head underwater — it was 30 feet of water — I could see oysters on the bottom. You go down and they were just one on top of each other. They're just very different out there now."

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley announces plans to restore the Chesapeake Bay oyster population. i

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (center) announces plans to restore the Chesapeake Bay oyster population during a news conference at the Annapolis Maritime Museum in December 2009. Brian Witte/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Brian Witte/AP
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley announces plans to restore the Chesapeake Bay oyster population.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (center) announces plans to restore the Chesapeake Bay oyster population during a news conference at the Annapolis Maritime Museum in December 2009.

Brian Witte/AP

Things got really bad for the bay's oysters when diseases carried by ships from abroad started to wipe them out. Then, runoff from farms and cities buried the survivors in sediment. And other types of pollution just made things worse.

Now the population is just a small fraction of what it used to be.

When the divers at the bottom of the river eventually found the oysters, they surfaced with a volleyball-sized cluster.

"You can see now they've grown into these really big healthy clumps of oysters," says Stephanie Westbay, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "A few dead oysters, but mostly alive."

A lot of other creatures came up with the bits of reef collected by the divers. They slithered out from the nooks and crevices in between the shells.

"If you look closely here on the deck, you can see all kinds of worms and mud crabs and little shrimp kicking around here," Westbay says.

By offering a place to live and hide to those creatures, the reef creates food for bigger creatures, says Bruce Goldsborough, who directs the Bay Foundation's fisheries program. The list includes blue crabs, striped bass and a variety of other fish that feed on the smaller creatures.

"So you're actually fueling the food web," Goldsborough says. "So you get a lot more of those fish that we catch and have economic value for us, that are able to find food and habitat."

He says in other sanctuaries, the reefs have attracted fish like black sea bass, which haven't been seen in the bay for decades.

The mollusks are also little water-treatment plants, filtering the water and keeping it clear so underwater plants can grow.  

"That's why the reef community is not about having a pile of oysters, but restoring the functioning of the whole ecosystem," Goldsborough says.

Maryland's Department of Natural Resources will finalize its new sanctuaries in September. The idea is to fill them with oysters and then leave them alone.

A lot is riding on the plan.

Watermen are skeptical and worried this will make it harder to make a living. But with all of the oysters' problems, scientists say the sanctuaries are the last best hope for these creatures.

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