Northrop Grumman dives into Chesapeake Bay oyster reef monitoring

Researchers study oysters
Two environmental groups hoping to plant 10 billion oysters in the Chesapeake Bay’s waters by 2025 are getting help from the Virginia-based aerospace firm. (Courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

Northrop Grumman is working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance to boost the oyster population in the bay.

Bay oyster populations are at historically low levels, said foundation president Will Baker. It’s estimated the current oyster population in the bay is close to 300 million. That’s down from 600 million about 20 years ago, according to the foundation.

The two environmental groups hope to plant 10 billion oysters in the bay’s waters by 2025. To do that, they need to monitor existing oyster reefs. The challenge is finding a way around the pitfalls of two commonly used methods.

Currently, dredge surveys are often used. But the 19th-century method — in which the oyster beds are essentially scraped and samples are brought to the surface for survey — can be disruptive to the reefs.

Underwater cameras can capture images, but that technology is often defeated by the murky waters where oyster reefs are commonly found.

“We don’t always know how well restoration projects are doing beneath the water,” Baker said.

That’s where the Virginia-based aerospace firm comes in.

According to a release from the foundation, Northrop Grumman has six teams of engineers working on developing new technology. Biochemical, acoustic or laser sensors could be deployed to help monitor the conditions of existing oyster habitat.

“This important work will bring new information to light from the depths of the bay,” Baker said.

R. Eric Rinke, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and chief science officer of emerging capabilities development, said the project provides a unique opportunity “to help inspire future scientists and engineers by showing the positive impact their work can have on protecting the environment.”

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