The program was launched in October 2013 as the Healthy Harbor Oyster Partnership. The following year, the program expanded and changed its name to the Great Baltimore Oyster Partnership. Then in 2015, the Partnership set an audacious goal to plant five million oysters in Baltimore's Patapsco River by 2020. The hope was to restore a small part of the oyster population that once was a fundamental part of Baltimore and Maryland's identity, economy, and ecosystem, and also to help educate Baltimore residents about the important role that oyster play in providing habitat and filtering the water.
Since the program began, more than 500 members of the public have participated, building their own cages and learning how to be oyster gardeners. Their cages are deployed along the piers of the Downtown Sailing Center and Baltimore Marine Centers' Lighthouse Point, and other locations around the Inner Harbor. Volunteers start growing baby oysters in the fall, filling wire cages with tiny oysters attached to old oyster shells and suspending the cages in the Harbor from piers and other structures. They maintain the cages throughout the winter. After nine months, the matured oysters are planted on a protected oyster sanctuary on the Patapsco River. As of spring 2018, roughly three million seed oysters have been planted.
"Oysters are considered a ‘keystone species' in the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay," said Carmera Thomas, CBF Baltimore Program Manager. "But the oyster population has been decimated by pollution, over-harvesting, and disease so federal, state, and non-governmental organizations have teamed up to create large sanctuary reefs where oysters can grow in relative safety."
The Partnership's efforts are paying off. While oysters in the wild often see only a one percent survival rate due to predation and low oxygen levels, the baby oysters, called spat, grown by the Great Baltimore Oyster Partnership heve maintained a 70 percent survival rate and increased 40 percent in size.
And participants are expanding their activities beyond harbor piers. In 2018, volunteers also helped paint murals and traveled to Annapolis to advocate for environmental legislation.
The Great Baltimore Oyster Partnership is part of the Healthy Harbor Initiative to make the Baltimore Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020, and a part of CBF's Maryland Oyster Gardening program. It includes members of the local business community, residents, and CBF members in Baltimore City. It also includes youth from schools around the city who are engaging groups on water quality issues in the Baltimore Inner Harbor specific to oysters and restoration in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Watch the video below to learn more. Note: The program changed its name from the Healthy Harbor Oyster Partnership to the Great Baltimore Oyster Partnership in 2014.