‘We’re really fixing what we’ve done’: 30 million baby oysters planted in Severn River

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As part of the Operation Build-a-Reef campaign, 30 million oyster spat were planted in the Severn River Wednesday at Jonas and Anne Catharine Green Park in Annapolis.

Spat, or oyster larvae, were placed throughout the river as part of the partnership between the Severn River Association and Oyster Recovery Partnership. The campaign aims to restore the depleted oyster population and reefs in the Chesapeake Bay.


About 130 million spat have been planted in the river since the partnership began in 2018, Jesse Iliff, the association’s executive director, said at a news conference Wednesday. He said the oysters help alleviate dead zones in the water by filtering out algae, which can deplete oxygen levels.

“This is an absolute cornerstone of our restoration work,” Iliff said.


Several local and state officials attended the planting, including County Executive Steuart Pittman. He praised the initiative and spoke of the challenges involved with environmental restoration.

“We’re really fixing what we’ve done, trying to do better than our predecessors,” Pittman said. “My dad always said that it’s each generation’s job to do better than the generation before it. And we have a lot of generations that kind of destroyed a lot of life in the Chesapeake Bay, and bringing it back is not easy, but it is God’s work. It’s nature’s work.”

Echoing Pittman, Del. Dana Jones, who represents Annapolis, said the state legislature allocated more than $1.97 million for oyster restoration programs in its fiscal 2023 operating budget.

“I have a 12-year-old little boy at home,” she said. “The work we do today is in fact for the kids tomorrow.”

Soon after the news conference, the Robert Lee, an oyster planting barge, arrived to drop off hundreds of thousands of pounds of spat. The 72-foot barge features a mountain of oyster shells that are pumped over the side at certain spots determined by GPS.

The hope is that the spat will become adults, which takes three years. Once they reach adulthood, their filtration and reproductive abilities begin to emerge. In previous years, organizers have said the survival rate of the planted oysters is about 80%.

After two years off because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program returned last year. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has previously provided funding for the project, but donations paid for the $40,000 of spat planted this year, said Ward Slacum, executive director of the recovery partnership. Smyth Jewelers, a Maryland-based jewelry chain, and Tito’s Handmade Vodka, were key donors this year.

After being placed, the oysters are monitored by the Severn River Association. To measure the efficacy of the spat planting, Iliff said the association and partnership commissioned scuba divers from the Army Corps of Engineers to study the growth of the oysters. The studies have shown improvement.


“The Army Corps study has shown that in places where these plantings have gone, we’ve had good survival,” Iliff said. “There’s some indication of natural reproduction.”

Additionally, Slacum said 2023 marked the state’s second consecutive record oyster harvest in more than 30 years. Since 1993, Slacum’s organization has planted more than 9 billion oysters.

“That’s an incredible milestone,” he said. “It’s a testament to all of our oyster recovery efforts.”