Northrop Grumman Experimenting with Sensors to Help CBF Monitor Oyster Reefs

Six engineering teams are working with the latest technology to develop a solution to a challenging environmental issue

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—As the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) works with its Chesapeake Oyster Alliance partners toward its 2025 goal to plant 10 billion oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, the organization has run into a frequent problem. It’s difficult to determine the best places to plant oysters, how they’re faring on existing reefs, and to what extent they’re supporting other species such as crabs and fish.

Today, the methods most often used to estimate oyster populations beneath the often-murky waters of the Bay are dredge surveys—a 19th Century technology—as well as oyster sales data and divers using underwater cameras.

Enter Northrop Grumman. This year the Virginia-based aerospace company is working with CBF to develop a new tool to monitor oyster reef habitat in the Bay.

The company is supporting about 30 engineers who are working on six different teams that will be looking at different technologies to develop a solution. The teams are experimenting with biochemical, acoustic, laser, and photographic sensors to determine which could work best to determine the volume, density, and health of oyster reefs. Northrop Grumman plans to choose one team’s sensors and then develop an above-water or underwater vehicle to use in the field by the end of the year.

“We chose to partner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on this project because it’s important to us to help protect one of our region’s most critical natural resources,” said R. Eric Reinke, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and chief science officer of emerging capabilities development. “This is also an opportunity for us to help inspire future scientists and engineers by showing the positive impact their work can have on protecting the environment. Some may eventually work for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and we hope some may work for Northrop Grumman. But, frankly, we have a responsibility to develop the science, engineering, and technology talent across this country. This is a way to do that.”

“CBF has been working to restore oysters for the past three decades,” said CBF President William Baker. “Oysters are the coral reefs of the Chesapeake. They support crabs, fish, and other Bay life. And they filter 50 gallons of water per adult oyster, every day! This innovative partnership brings Northrop Grumman’s technological expertise to a complex Bay issue—restoring the native oyster. We know oyster populations in the Bay are at historically low levels. But we don’t always know how well restoration projects are doing beneath the water. This important work will bring new information to light from the depths of the Bay.”

In June, Northrop Grumman executives and the engineering teams visited CBF headquarters and the Maryland Oyster Restoration Center to learn more about the bivalves and CBF’s monitoring efforts. At the restoration center, they had the opportunity to view the clear water box, an innovative camera system developed by an underwater photographer to take photos of oyster reefs. The camera system is currently one of the most advanced tools used by CBF to photograph and document reef conditions. It can take detailed pictures and video enabling scientists to examine the reef’s health and create a baseline of images to compare future surveys.

However, it has its limitations. The current system requires good weather conditions, an experienced diver to operate, and is not capable of capturing large areas or multiple oyster reefs in a short period of time.

CBF’s partnership with Northrop Grumman will support the foundation’s work to reverse the long-term decline of oysters in the Bay. Ongoing efforts include restoring oyster sanctuaries, advocating for sound fisheries policy, and supporting the growth of sustainable oyster farming businesses.

Current oyster populations in the Bay are estimated to be at 1 to 2 percent of historic levels due to centuries of overharvesting, pollution, and disease. In Maryland, oyster populations over the last 20 years have fallen from about 600 million adult oysters in 1999 to around 300 million in 2018, according to the state’s oyster stock assessment.

Oysters are a keystone species in the Bay. In addition to providing habitat to marine life and naturally filtering water, the bivalves sequester nitrogen and phosphorous in their shells and tissue.

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