Trouble, then a turnaround at Md.’s biggest oyster hatchery

Maryland’s largest oyster hatchery has been having serious production problems. But now, late in the season, things appear to be turning around.

The University of Maryland’s Horn Point Oyster Hatchery — located on the Choptank River in Cambridge — is also one of the largest on the East Coast. It typically produces at least 500 million spat on shell per year.

But so far this year, that number is just 6.5 million.

“It’s been a struggle this year, and I believe it’s primarily been driven by low salinity conditions that have changed the environment that the oysters are growing in,” said hatchery manager Stephanie Alexander. “We’ve been at low salinity levels for over a year now, and the oysters are stressed. And because they’re stressed, they’re not really thinking about reproduction.”

Massive rainfall in the last year or so is what drove down salinity, she said. 2018 was the wettest year on record in many parts of the area, including D.C.

Normal salinity levels at the hatchery range from eight to 12 parts per thousand. But earlier this year, they were an extremely low five parts per thousand. In recent weeks, they’ve climbed to about eight parts per thousand, and the oysters have responded.

“Things have dramatically turned around from what it was even three weeks ago,” Alexander said.

The hatchery’s season typically winds down sometime between late August and mid-September, but work is not slowing yet.

“We’re going to push our season as long as we possibly can,” Alexander said.

The situation might affect consumers 18 months to two years from now, when this year’s batch of baby oysters, or spat, will be ready for harvest.

“How much, I have no idea, but … we’re going to see something and that may last for a year or two,” Alexander said.

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