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Historically Black University Works with Maryland’s Seafood Industry Watermen

ST. LEONARD, Md. – Watermen in Calvert County have an unlikely ally in their effort to explore aquaculture as a means to shore up the flagging industry—Morgan State University.

A historically Black college and Maryland’s designated “Public Urban University,” 140-year-old Morgan State’s campus is in Baltimore, where about 6,000 students are enrolled. The university offers graduate and postgraduate degrees and has programs in architecture, engineering, and education and other liberal arts programs.

And since 2004, Morgan State has run a marine research facility that is working with the Calvert County Watermen’s Association to provide equipment and training to help the watermen make the transition to oyster aquaculturists while preserving the culture and heritage of the profession.

“I believe we’re the first historically Black college with this kind of facility,” said Kelton Clark, director of the Morgan State University Estuarine Research Center.

The Estuarine Research Center was built in 1967 by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences as a field laboratory in Benedict. The center moved to its current home, at Jefferson Patterson Park in St. Leonard, in 1994. The entire facility was deeded to Morgan State in September 2004.

The center’s facilities include 22,000 square feet of lab and office space and a fleet of research vessels. There is also a scuba support and dive locker and a private dock with access to the Patuxent River.

Concerned about the dearth of oysters in the bay and the future of the oyster industry in Southern Maryland, Clark said he wanted to create a sustainable solution to address both issues. His answer was an approach similar to the business incubator model to work with watermen. For the oysters, he said, a good solution was to look to agriculture for an answer.

“I thought, why don’t we use the same marketplace business plan that farmers use in agriculture to plant oysters back in the bay like they do with corn or potatoes on land,” Clark said.

At the heart of the oyster program is a hatchery, which opened in May 2010, that is capable of producing 20 million “spat-on-shell” oysters annually. Oyster larvae, or spat, float in the water until they head to the bottom in search of a hard surface to anchor to while they grow their familiar shell. Spat-on-shell refers to the process of putting spat near old, empty oyster shells for the young ones to latch onto.

Clark said the goal is to provide the watermen with the training and equipment they need to get started and keep doing it until the aquaculture industry grows and becomes sustainable.

“We’re here to support the industry in its initial stage,” Clark said. “This really is an economic development project—it’s about getting people to work.”

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