The Chesapeake Bay once supplied half the world's oyster market. But pollution, disease and over-harvesting have nearly wiped out the population. It's a dire situation that's united former adversaries to revive the oyster ecosystem and industry.
Scientists and watermen have joined forces to plant underwater farms in the bay with a special oyster bred in a lab. Called triploid oysters, they have been selected for attributes like disease tolerance and fast growth.
The oysters are sterile, which means that instead of using their energy to reproduce, they use all of it to grow. That allows them to reach market size twice as quickly and be harvested year-round.
"It stays fat all the time," notes Tucker Brown, one of about two dozen oystermen collaborating with scientists on the project.
And when it comes time to plant these lab-bred oysters, says Dave White, a Maryland state biologist, "the watermen have a great input in it, because they're more familiar with the bottom than most of the researchers."
A few years ago, scientists like White might have found themselves fighting with watermen over the best way to manage the oyster. And indeed, decades ago, watermen used to be able to harvest hundreds of thousands of bushels of oysters a year from the Potomac River. But these days, they're lucky to harvest a few thousand, says Jim Wesson, the lead scientist on the project from Virginia.
That's led to collaborations like this underwater farm, one of several ongoing projects that officials in Virginia and Maryland hope will help restore Chesapeake Bay oyster populations. As NPR has previously reported, some projects have focused on using man-made reefs to attract wild baby oysters; others have created oyster sanctuaries where harvesting would be banned.
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