CAMBRIDGE - Oyster spat sets produced in 2012 hit record numbers, partly thanks to the efforts by the Horn Point Laboratory Oyster Hatchery of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies and their partners, who are involved in the largest targeted restoration effort on the East Coast.

It's the fifth year in a row the hatchery's production of oyster spat, or young oysters, exceeded half a billion, this year producing more than 880 million in efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population.

"We're helping mother nature by kind of jump starting the process. We were able to get as many oysters produced as we could and make everybody happy," said hatchery manager Stephanie Alexander.

The hatchery [-]  the largest oyster hatchery on the East Coast [-] takes adult oysters, spawns them, raises the larvae, gets them to set in adult shells and then puts them onto oyster bars in the Bay.

Also, the sites where the spat were dropped are improved prior to putting them there by collecting samples of the beds to see what needs to be done to it to sustain oyster restoration.

Alexander said the future of the oyster industry is looking pretty positive. She said the hatchery proved this year through spat numbers they can sustain high numbers, provide restoration and still support the oyster industry.

Oysters are beneficial to the Chesapeake Bay because they filter and clean water and provide a habitat for other aquatic life. Adult oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The filtration of the whole Bay used to only take a few days, but now it takes more than a year.  

Beside their ecological importance, oysters also are important to the Eastern Shore economy, because of the long-standing tradition of the oyster industry in the area, according to Alexander.

"The watermen, they're such an iconic image to the Bay," she said.

The hatchery, along with its partners, the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineering and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, are working together to restore the oyster industry of the Chesapeake Bay to its prowess.

By putting more oysters in the water, they'll be able to grow and better spawn more around the Bay, while also filtering and cleaning more water.

About 460 million spat produced by the hatchery are protected in sanctuaries set up by the DNR, where watermen cannot harvest. Most of the spat has been put into the Harris Creek sanctuary.

According to the partnership, of 360 acres set as a goal for oyster production in Harris Creek, almost one-third has been planted with enhanced substrate and spat.

Oyster reefs must have a minimum of 15 oysters and 15 grams of biomass per square meter and cover at least 30 percent of the reef six years after restoration activity to qualify as a restored reef. The oysters also must have at least two year classes of oysters on each reef, meaning the oysters are two years old. This definition has been adopted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"Hopefully they'll [oysters] get to the point where they can sustain themselves," she said.

Besides the restoration efforts, the partnership has collected nearly 30,000 bushels of oyster shells for its Shell Recycling Alliance since its inception in 2010. The shells are necessary to set oyster spat on.

The hatchery will open its doors and show off the entire lab from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13, for its annual open house at 2020 Horns Point Road, Cambridge. There will be a tour, hayrides, a touch tank, arts and crafts, food vendors and even games for kids.

Alexander said families can come to the hatchery and make a day or it, learning a lot about the Bay all while having a good time, too.

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