Gimme an O (for oyster)

Special To The Sun

It once held 60,000 screaming sports zealots. Now, in modified form, Memorial Stadium will hold millions of smaller, more sedate creatures.

In an attempt to create an artificial oyster reef, 10,000 cubic yards of crushed concrete from the old 33rd Street stadium, demolished two years ago, are being spread over 6 acres of Chesapeake Bay bottom.

Yesterday, a million baby oysters were dropped onto the rubble, which ecologists hope will provide the bivalves with a comfortable home.

Ecologists say the Memorial Stadium Oyster Reef Sanctuary, as the project is known, is a small step toward reviving the bay's decimated oyster population. Over the decades, Chesapeake oysters have been devastated by diseases, habitat destruction, overharvesting and pollution. Three years of drought have further harmed the shellfish by increasing water salinity, which spurs the two deadly oyster ailments, MSX and Dermo.

"Oyster populations in the bay today are just a tiny fraction of what they once were, maybe 1 percent or 2 percent of [levels] 150 years ago," said Eric Schwaab, fisheries director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The 140,000 bushels harvested in the six-month commercial season that ended in March were among the lowest catches on record.

On a cloudless, warm day that would have been ideal for cheering an Eddie Murray homer or a Johnny Unitas touchdown pass, workmen dumped two muddy, 10-foot-high pyramids of baseball-sized rubble from a barge into murky water about 15 feet deep.

Meanwhile, on another boat, a pyramid of baby oysters was swept overboard with a high-pressure hose. Three miles off Tolchester Beach, the sanctuary is one of 26 that Maryland DNR has created during the past several years. Covering 6 acres, the Memorial reef should eventually play host to 12 million baby oysters, scientists predict.

As runoff from farms and subdivisions has grown in recent decades, the bay bottom has become increasingly covered with sediment; oysters often suffocate in these soft deposits.

In trying to create or restore reefs, ecologists have generally used fossilized oyster shells dredged from the bay bottom. But as this source has become less plentiful, they have turned to man-made materials such as slag and stone.

The Memorial reef is the first large one made of concrete. Officials will monitor it, comparing its performance with other man-made reefs.

Ecologists say oysters will thrive in the concrete rubble. Its hard surface and rough texture enable the creatures to easily attach themselves.

The Memorial reef is not the first to use stadium material. In May, the Horsehead Wetlands Center in Grasonville spread rubble on a much smaller area in Prospect Bay. The center recently seeded the reef with a million baby oysters, each the size of a dime or quarter.

In recent years, Chesapeake ecologists have focused on reviving the oyster population, which they say is key to rejuvenating the bay. Oysters filter impurities from the water, and their reefs provide habitat for a wide range of aquatic creatures.

"Oysters are these ugly-looking little bivalves, and they don't get respect. But they are the cornerstone of the Chesapeake Bay," said Baltimore entrepreneur Keith Campbell, who is deeply involved in oyster restoration.

Campbell, who has been fishing on the bay since 1958, came up with the idea of using stadium rubble for the reef. One day, as the stadium was being demolished, he had a light-bulb moment: "I thought 'Concrete! It's nontoxic, it's rough, it's a perfect substrate for oysters.'"

Campbell, owner and operator of an investment management firm in Towson, started calling his friends in the oyster-restoration community.

The sanctuary, which cost $375,000, also appealed to fishermen, because finned species such as rockfish and white perch tend to congregate around oyster reefs. Among the groups that supported the project was the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association.

The reef is part of a larger state effort to increase the number of sanctuaries - protected areas where harvesting is prohibited.

There are a few hundred acres of restored reefs in Maryland waters. Sixty acres have been added this year; 100 more are slated for next year. According to DNR biologist Tom O'Connell, who oversaw the Memorial reef, the goal is 10,000 restored acres. Schwaab says Maryland waters now have perhaps 12,000 acres of reefs, down from a normal of 65,000 acres.

Nostalgia for the 33rd Street landmark suffused yesterday's event. Many of those involved had a favorite memory. Campbell recalled watching Unitas standing in the pocket, his arm cocked, ready to fling the ball to a streaking receiver.

William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told of being a Junior Oriole in the early '60s, "sitting in the left field bleachers, pestering Mickey Mantle."

Before the first bucket of rubble went overboard, Campbell asked for a moment of silence for the World War II veterans originally honored by the stadium.

Not everyone was so delighted with the Memorial reef.

"I think that this is the final disgrace to World War II veterans," said Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who strongly opposed the stadium's demolition, arguing that it was disrespectful. "What they should do is to bury it, not to dump it out in the bay, so somebody can go fishing on it."

For different reasons, others are skeptical of the reef project. Some ecologists argue that oyster restoration is a lost cause. Instead of trying to bring back native oysters, they say, officials should focus on the possibility of introducing a species of Asian oyster that seems immune to MSX and Dermo, and also grows faster than the natives.

"We have 40 years of experience that says the native oysters are not cutting it," says Jim Wesson, who runs the conservation program for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

But the Memorial Project's defenders say Wesson is jumping the gun. Noting that Virginia's oysters have been hit much harder by disease than Maryland's, they argue that native oysters deserve more time.

"We think he's giving up on the native oyster too soon," said the bay foundation's Baker. "It took years for it to decline. You can't expect it to return right away."

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