CAMBRIDGE, Md. (WUSA) - The Chesapeake Bay Oyster is a regional favorite that's been loved almost to extinction.
But this year, the largest oyster hatchery on the East Coast is on track to produce a record number of baby oysters - or spat.
A tour of the University of Maryland's Horn Point Lab Oyster Hatchery in Cambridge shows the robust production.
"If we want clean water, healthy water, healthy seafood, a thriving aquaculture oyster industry or public other fishery, we need a lot more oysters out there," said Mutt Merritt, who has made it his life's mission to restore teh Chesapeake Bay's oyster population.
He said, " Oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay are decimated."
But slowly, year by year, Mutt and his team at Horn Point Oyster Hatchery are trying to change that. It's part of the state's oyster restoration program.
He said, "We are trying to help Mother Nature get back to some level of population that we can start turning the corner and the oysters will start to help themselves repopulate."
At the hatchery, he points out, "There's sperm being expelled right out there... Right there. See it? So what is happening right now is ... the rest of the oysters, from their filtering activity, sense that spawning has occurred. That triggers a spawning response in them."
The fertilized eggs are just floating in water so they're brought to huge tanks to develope, and are fed a home-grown algae. Then they're released into the Chesapeake Bay.
A pile of shells shows just some of those from the 2 billion baby oysters - or spat - that this hatchery has deployed into the Chesapeake Bay over the last 10 years. They'll deploy half a billion this year alone, which makes this the largest oyster hatchery on the entire East Coast.
As record breaking as those numbers are, this hatchery is designed to produce up to four times that amount. The problem? Funding and oyster shells.
Mutt Merritt said, "This is a tiny fraction of what we need."
Mutt is talking about the mountain of oyster shells behind him. To make more spat, he needs more shells for them to attach to. He's cautiously optimistic.
"As the oyster harvest increases, we hope that will supply some more shells for us," he said. "Oysters won't solve all the problems of the bay, but you're not going to get a clean, healthy bay back without having healthy oyster populations."
If you'd like to see the hatchery for yourself, it offers weekday tours but only during spawning season.
That runs from March through September.