Morgan State leads the way in Aquaculture

With the opening of an oyster hatchery at the Morgan State University research center in St. Leonard, watermen have a resource to fuel and model their ongoing experimentation with aquaculture.

The 616-square-foot facility will be used to raise oyster larvae into spat, or baby oysters, so they can attach to empty oyster shells. The spat-on-shell then will be taken by watermen to areas in the south Patuxent River the watermen lease from the state.

The plan is for the oysters to grow a few years before they are harvested and to have revenue from the first batch support the next.

“As scientists, as researchers, we have an obligation to society to do more than just collect data and analyze it,” said Kelton Clark, director of the Morgan State University Estuarine Research Center, where students study ways to manage and protect coastal ecosystems.

The hatchery is designed to serve as a pilot program that could be implemented in the private sector and act as the driving force behind a new oyster industry built on aquaculture.

The hatchery, built with a $1.2 million federal grant, houses eight 3,200-liter fiberglass tanks — four for larval production and fertilization and four for algae growth.

Clark first approached Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert County Watermen’s Association, with the idea for the hatchery as a way to help the local oyster industry to survive.

Decades ago, watermen enjoyed abundant oyster harvests, but disease, pollution and, some would say, over-harvesting have reduced the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population to 1 percent of historic levels.

Still, Zinn estimated oysters represent about 40 percent of county watermen’s income, with crabbing and fishing making up the remaining 60 percent.

Restoring the oyster population has become a focus of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) administration and a critical element of its efforts to clean up the bay. One adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day.

A major component of O’Malley’s plan is to cut down on wild harvests and encourage aquaculture, a method of growing, or farming, marine life that is used worldwide. The state has permitted two 50-acre “enterprise zones” in the Patuxent River, for aquaculture, sections of which are subleased to individuals or businesses interested in growing oysters
Zinn called aquaculture an “experimental project, [and] we’re trying to see whether it’s feasible to do it.”

Watermen remain skeptical because of high start-up costs and a delayed return on that investment, which can be erased by disease, predators and poaching, he said.

While leases cost $300 upfront and $3.50 per acre per year, the real cost comes in purchasing the oysters. The state requires those growing oysters to plant 1 million per acre and work at least 25 percent of their leased area each year. At a price tag of $10,000 per million oysters, a waterman with a 10-acre lease would be looking at a minimum investment of $25,000, which in many cases could represent his annual income, Zinn said.

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  • Halcum Aubrey

    Reply Reply December 5, 2010

    This is a great story! Morgan State University is a university with a long history of producing outstanding graduates by faculty who have conducted extraordinary research in many disciplines. It is quite gratifying to see that the university continues to break new ground in innovative research and development. This project will have a very important and lasting impact on the Maryland economy particularly in the seafood industry. Please continue keeping the public informed on other such outstanding developments at Morgan State University.

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