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