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Another body of water has drawn the attention of scientists and environmentalists, the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia.

The Eastern oyster once dominated the bay. Now its barely hanging on. The state of Maryland is drawing up plans to set aside 25 percent of all oyster habitats in the bay as permanent sanctuaries where harvesting would be banned. Experts say that if oysters can just be left alone, they might start to come back - along with a bunch of other creatures.

Sabri Ben-Achour of member station WAMU recently visited an oyster sanctuary to find out.

SABRI BEN-ACHOUR: Under the murky water of the Severn River in Maryland, just off the Chesapeake Bay, divers are searching the bottom. They report back over an intercom.��

Unidentified Man: There is nothing bad (unintelligible) the Severn.

BEN-ACHOUR: Theyre looking for the oysters they planted five years ago. The water is cloudy and they spend a few minutes looking around.�

There was a time when this water was crystal clear, and when you didnt have to search 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 the reefs were so high they stuck out of the water. But by 1920, three quarters of the bays 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.

Mutt Merritt is a biologist. His lab at Horn Point hatched the oysters the divers are looking for now.

Mr. MUTT MERRITT (Biologist): When I was a kid, oyster reefs were everywhere.� Back in '72 or so, the minute I put my head underwater - I was in about 30 feet of water - I could see oysters on the bottom. You know, it's just very different out there now.

BEN-ACHOUR: Things got really bad when diseases carried by ships from abroad started to wipe them out.�Runoff from farms and cities buried the survivors in sediment.

Pollution just made things worse. Now the population is just a small fraction of what it used to be. Back on the bottom of the river, the divers have found something.�

Unidentified Person: (Unintelligible)

BEN-ACHOUR: They come up to the surface with volleyball-sized clusters of oysters. Stephanie Westbay is a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.�

Ms. STEPHANIE WESTBAY (Chesapeake Bay Foundation): You can see now theyve grown into these really big healthy clumps of oysters, a few dead oysters but virtually all of them are alive.

BEN-ACHOUR: And a lot of other creatures came up with the bits of reef. They slither out from the nooks and crevices in between the shells.

Ms. WESTBAY: And if you look carefully on the deck here you can see all kinds of worms and mud crabs and some little shrimp kicking around and that kind of thing.

BEN-ACHOUR: By offering a place to live and hide to those creatures, the reef creates food for bigger creatures.

Mr. BRUCE GOLDSBOROUGH (Chesapeake Bay Foundation): Striped bass, blue crabs, a variety of fish that feed on them.��

BEN-ACHOUR: Bruce Goldsborough directs the fisheries program with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.�

Mr. GOLDSBOROUGH: So youre actually fueling the food web, because then you get a lot more of those fish that we actually catch and have economic value for us.

BEN-ACHOUR: He says in other sanctuaries, the reefs have attracted fish like black sea bass, which havent 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.��

Mr. GOLDSBOROUGH: So thats why the reef community itself is not just about having a pile of oysters, but it's about restoring the functioning of the whole ecosystem.

BEN-ACHOUR: Marylands 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 these creatures have.��

For NPR News, I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

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