A Watered-Down Memorial Stadium
Rubble to Become Oyster-Growing Reef in Bay

Baby oysters, or spat, in these tanks filled with water and the shells of adult oysters are too small to be seen easily with the naked eye. (Michelle Giernow - For The Washington Post)

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By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 16, 2002; Page B01

CAMBRIDGE, Md. -- It takes more than a little imagination to envision the future of the inglorious pile of rubble that is sitting in a dirt lot on the fringe of Baltimore's rusting steel belt.

Once a 58,000-seat monument to U.S. veterans, a cathedral for baseball and football fans, some 10,000 cubic yards of the brick and concrete remains of Memorial Stadium are destined to rise next month into a new kind of sanctuary.

The idea is to build a reef with millions of oysters on the murky bottom of the Chesapeake Bay where they once thrived, to create the foundation for a teeming city of hundreds of other species, from rockfish and crabs to underwater grasses.

The $350,000 project is as much an act of faith as it is a public relations device, a dramatic gesture designed to rally public enthusiasm for the critical, if charismatically limited, oyster.

Privately, some scientists and environmentalists question the value of the project as a restoration: It has been at least 60 years since a healthy, self-sustaining oyster reef existed on the site off the shore of Kent County, and there is little chance that the creatures they plant will survive beyond a few years.

In some respects, the Memorial Stadium reef project comes at the worst of times for oysters. More hatchery-grown creatures are being planted than ever before, but populations are declining throughout the bay.

In the northern waters of the Chesapeake, where oysters have difficulty reproducing because of the low salinity of the water, vast underwater plains of oyster reefs are being silted over by erosion, and the largest known deposit of oyster shells, a Stone Age quarry that has been mined for 40 years to make new reefs, is nearing depletion.

In Virginia, reproduction rates have been down and the drought has allowed two deadly oyster diseases to flourish, ravaging the small and weak population that remains.

In both states, officials fear that this year's harvest may be the lowest on record.

All of which highlights the need for Maryland to continue its program of replenishing oyster stocks, proponents say.

Donald "Mutt" Merritt, a burly scientist who grows 95 percent of Maryland's oysters, loves to show visitors his orgiastic oyster videos -- males spewing sperm into the water column to fertilize plumes of eggs released by females.

It is a process he cultivates as many as 60 times a year at the University of Maryland Horn Point Laboratory on the Eastern Shore by carefully creating an environment that encourages oysters to spawn.

As subjects, the creatures are not particularly dynamic, spending most of their lives lying on the bottom. But when Merritt's lab in Cambridge gets it right, the oysters put on display a mating ritual that can last for a half-hour at a time.

When placed together in special mating tanks, the process begins when one male starts to spray sperm. Soon, others follow and the females will reciprocate, clouding the water with millions of gametes.

Once the eggs are fertilized, the larvae are placed into large tanks where they are fed a nutrient-rich soup of algae, specially grown by Merritt's staff.

After about three weeks, they sink to the bottom of the tanks and grow a "foot" that allows them to crawl around in search of something to attach to. When they find a spot they like, they secrete a cement-like substance and glue themselves to the surface -- preferably another oyster shell.

Thirty years ago, when Merritt helped open the lab, it grew about 1 million oysters a year to help replace a population devastated by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Now, it is producing 50 million to 100 million baby oysters a year, and an expansion could triple the hatchery's capacity by next year.

Protective of his wards, which he alternatively refers to as "patients on life support" and soldiers in the war against the decline of the bay, he sees his role as critical in the restoration effort, particularly until solutions to the disease problems are found.

"It's like we're in a war. If the objectives in the war are important enough, you keep adding troops," he said. "That's what these oysters are. The health of the bay is too important to all of us to not do this."

Over the years, he has coaxed oysters into growing on tires, bricks, even fly ash produced by incinerators. He is willing to give just about anything a try, if he thinks it will help get more oysters in the bay or increase scientists' understanding of the diseases -- MSX and Dermo -- that invariably kill them.

In truth, he finds it a little strange, all the oyster-growing fads that have come and gone. First, "clutchless" oysters were the standard -- grown on small particles of shells or nothing at all, then raised in trays filled with running water. But when they grew large enough to be dumped into the bay, the crabs and fish immediately seized upon them as the perfect snack food, cracking them open or gobbling them up whole.

Then there were oyster shells, stuffed into mesh bags, which were then set in large tanks of water, where the larvae were mixed in.

Once the oysters took hold of the shells, the bags were raised out of the tanks and planted -- a successful method but labor-intensive.

Now, Merritt uses steel and mesh crates, filling them with shells, then larvae, and then lifting them with a crane and dumping them directly into the water.

For the Memorial Stadium project, he stirred 20 million oyster larvae into two large tanks filled with "reef balls" -- large, igloo-shaped concrete structures with holes all around -- in hopes of getting oysters to set on them.

If it works well and gives more oysters room to grow, that's great, he figures.

"We've gone through every good, every wacky idea you could think of in the past 30 years," he said. "Mother Nature is constantly giving you exams, and if you're smart enough to study the right things you'll learn from them every once in a while."

The numbers, however, are daunting.

When the governors of Maryland and Virginia promised two year ago to increase the bay's oyster population tenfold, the goal had not been quantified yet.

But a panel gathered under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program has at least come up with a back-of-the-envelope estimate that Maryland alone will have to produce 5 billion to 6 billion oysters to meet that goal.

Stephen J. Jordan, director of the Paul S. Sarbanes Cooperative Oxford Laboratory and a member of that panel, says hatchery oysters will help move the states toward their goal, but that alone will not be enough. "If they don't contribute to reproduction, it's a useless exercise," Jordan said.

Several oyster experts say the the northern bay site where the Memorial Stadium reef will be built would not be their first choice for such a project. Once planted, the oysters will grow fine, but they probably will not find the fresh water to their liking to reproduce.

In the end, however, even if the stadium reef population requires regular restocking to flourish, its greatest value may be something altogether different, its boosters say.

Keith Campbell, a Baltimore County businessman, fisherman and surfer who is credited with the stadium reef idea, believes its genius may simply be to expand the public's understanding of oysters as a critical, historical resource.

When oysters thrived and the Chesapeake Bay was the world's biggest producer of the succulent bivalves, they filtered its fathoms in a matter of days.

"Fishermen know oyster reefs are some of the most productive fishing environments you can put a lure into," said Campbell, 60. This year, he built a boat, costing nearly $700,000, for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to plant millions of oysters grown by volunteers.

The Memorial Stadium reef project "gives a significant ring to the notion of what oysters can do," Campbell said.

"There's a lot of negativism on almost every front, whether it's, 'Oh, they won't spawn,' 'They won't set,' 'The watermen will take them,' " he said. "But you know nothing will happen unless somebody does something."

2002 The Washington Post Company