Horn Point Lab - Bringing Back the Bay, One Oyster at a Time

by Dorcas Coleman
Negotiating the bends of rustic Route 343 as it bumps and winds its way through Dorchester County farms and marshlands, one would hardly expect it to end up at a state-of-the-art facility tasked with changing the way scientists, environmentalists and governmental officials approach the protection and management of our most precious natural resources. However, set along the banks of the Choptank River several miles outside the town of Cambridge is the new University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Aquaculture and Restoration Ecology Laboratory (AERL), the nation’s first research facility dedicated to the holistic restoration of a major ecosystem like the Chesapeake Bay.

A State-of-the-Art Facility
It was here that on November 20, 2003, Maryland governors past and present joined staff from the University of Maryland, the State Departments of Natural a photo with State Senator Richard Colburn, UMCES President Donald Boesch, former Governor Marvin Mandel and Governor Ehrlich dedicate the new facility.Resources (DNR) and Environment (MDE), and other federal, state and local officials to dedicate the new laboratory at Horn Point. Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., along with former Governors Harry Hughes and Marvin Mandel, each spoke eloquently about the need for such a facility in Maryland.

The AERL is the newest addition to the Horn Point Laboratory complex, an arm of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), the principal institution for advanced environmental research and graduate studies within the University System of Maryland. The facility has long been engaged in research on the biology, chemistry, physics and ecology of organisms and ecosystems, from the wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay to the open waters of the world’s oceans.

a photo of Governor Ehrlich taking a tour through AERLThe new $25 million laboratory is the only university research facility in the nation dedicated to restoration ecology, in which aquaculture approaches are integrated with ecosystem science to produce environmentally sustainable strategies to restore coastal environments such as the Chesapeake Bay. Begun in December 2001 and completed in less than two years, the AREL contains more than 62,000 square feet dedicated to the science of the sustainable development of our living resources, effective ecosystem restoration, and aquaculture that is economically and environmentally sound.

Help for a Troubled Population
A chief area of AREL efforts is its oyster restoration program. Maryland’s native oyster, Crassostrea virginica, one of the most recognizable symbols of the state’s heritage and culture, is rivaled in tradition and lore only by the blue crab. But its recent woes threaten to completely undermine the industry that has grown up around this legendary bivalve. October’s cooler days typically bring a renewed enthusiasm to fishing villages around the Chesapeake with the approach of the commercial oyster season. However, October 2003 found the oyster industry in its worst shape ever with the season’s harvest projected to be less than half of last year’s record low 53,000 bushels.

The oyster hatchery at the Horn Point Laboratory (HPL) has a long history of producing larvae and seed oysters for use in research, extension and restoration projects, and currently spawns and rears over 95 percent of the oyster larvae produced in Maryland. In recent years efforts have been dramatically increased as a result of a heightened awareness of the oyster problem throughout the Bay region, an awareness brought about by scientists, resource managers, watermen and environmental groups in response to the Chesapeake’s declining stocks.

The new shellfish culture facility at AERL will more than double current oyster spat production, aiding research and restoration efforts across the state. The building will also provide state-of-the-art quarantine systems for sensitive research on non-native species such as the Asian oyster (Crassostrea ariakensis) without risking accidental introduction directly into the Bay’s waters. The facility’s greenhouse will support algal culture for oyster aquaculture production, and the anticipated improvements in algae production and larval nutrition could result in up to a 10-fold increase in oyster spat production over the next decade.

Another feature of the new facility, a unique 25-foot water flume, will allow for the study of how water flow, such as waves and currents, affects marsh and bay grass systems and animal communities. Six miles of pipes will carry 14 different types of water into the laboratories.

The oyster larvae that have long been produced at Horn Point are used to set oyster spat on shells for restoration activities, conduct research on a wide range of oyster-related topics, and provide for educational and outreach programs aimed at watermen, oyster culturists, students and the general public. HPL scientists work closely with researchers from other states on projects aimed at solving the problems that plague oysters in the region, such as the diseases MSX and Dermo. Larvae and spat produced at the lab are used in conjunction with oysters produced by hatcheries in other states in cooperative programs on oyster disease.

Strategic Partners and Future Plans
The larvae and seed oysters have gone into Oyster Recovery Areas (ORAs) and community plantings under the auspices of numerous public and private partnerships. DNR, the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Maryland Watermen’s Association are some of the agencies that work with environmental and educational groups and aquaculturists. Adding to these efforts are a growing number of individual citizens and school groups operating under an oyster gardening program developed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Over the past eight years oyster seed from the Horn Point Laboratory has been deployed in the Chester, Miles, Wye, Choptank, Nanticoke, Patuxent, Patapsco, Severn, South, Magothy, West and Tred Avon Rivers, along Tangier Sound, Eastern Bay, the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland’s Coastal Bays. Many of these plantings will contribute to the troubled oyster fishery in future years while some have been placed on sanctuaries where it is hoped they will enhance the reproductive potential of our depleted stocks and provide more natural spat for restoration.

The types of cooperative programs that are being developed at Horn Point and the new AERL will play a key role in abundantly stocking restoration sites and guiding research into improved methods designed to bring back a healthy oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay. The AREL will not only greatly expand the capacity of oyster production at Horn Point, but will also provide controlled environmental facilities needed to advance oyster culture and disease research. Finally, it will greatly improve UMCES’ capabilities for research in restoration of wetlands, submerged aquatic vegetation and other critical habitats in the Chesapeake Bay.

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