Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland Fisheries scientist Allison Colden, right, examines oyster shells with Northrop Grumman engineers during a boat trip on the Chesapeake Bay in June.

ANNAPOLIS — Northrop Grumman, the Virginia-based aerospace company, is working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to develop a new tool to monitor oyster reef habitat in the Bay this year.

The CBF is working with its Chesapeake Oyster Alliance partners toward its 2025 goal to plant 10 billion oysters in the Chesapeake Bay but has run into a frequent problem. It’s difficult to determine the best places to plant oysters, how they’re faring on existing reefs and to what extent they’re supporting other species such as crabs and fish.

The methods most often used to estimate oyster populations beneath the often-murky waters of the Bay are dredge surveys, a 19th century technology, and oyster sales data and divers using underwater cameras.

“This innovative partnership brings Northrop Grumman’s technological expertise to a complex Bay issue — restoring the native oyster,” CBF President William Baker said. “We know oyster populations in the Bay are at historically low levels. But we don’t always know how well restoration projects are doing beneath the water. This important work will bring new information to light from the depths of the Bay.”

Northrop Grumman is supporting about 30 engineers who are working on six different teams that will be looking at different technologies to develop a solution. The teams are experimenting with biochemical, acoustic, laser and photographic sensors. They determine which could work best to determine the volume, density and health of oyster reefs.

Northrop Grumman plans to choose one team’s sensors and then develop an above-water or underwater vehicle to use in the field by the end of the year.

In June, Northrop Grumman executives and the engineering teams visited CBF headquarters and the Maryland Oyster Restoration Center to learn more about the bivalves and CBF’s monitoring efforts. At the restoration center, they viewed the clear water box, an innovative camera system developed by an underwater photographer to take photos of oyster reefs.

The camera system is one of the most advanced tools used by CBF to photograph and document reef conditions.

It can take detailed pictures and video, enabling scientists to examine the reef’s health and create a baseline of images to compare future surveys. The current system requires good weather conditions and an experienced diver to operate, and is not capable of capturing large areas or multiple oyster reefs in a short period of time.

“We chose to partner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on this project because it’s important to us to help protect one of our region’s most critical natural resources,” said R. Eric Reinke, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and chief science officer of emerging capabilities development. “This is also an opportunity for us to help inspire future scientists and engineers by showing the positive impact their work can have on protecting the environment.”

CBF’s partnership with Northrop Grumman will support the foundation’s work to reverse the long-term decline of oysters in the Bay. Ongoing efforts include restoring oyster sanctuaries, advocating for sound fisheries policy and supporting the growth of sustainable oyster farming businesses.

Current oyster populations in the Bay are estimated to be at 1% to 2% of historic levels due to centuries of over-harvesting, pollution and disease. In Maryland, oyster populations during the past 20 years have fallen from about 600 million adult oysters in 1999 to around 300 million in 2018, according to the state’s oyster stock assessment.

In addition to providing habitat to marine life and naturally filtering water, the bivalves sequester nitrogen and phosphorous in their shells and tissue.

“Oyster reefs provide critical habitat for baby oysters as well as crabs, fish and other marine life,” said Allison Colden, Maryland fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “By conserving and restoring reefs, we can help increase the oyster population and in turn improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.”

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