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St. Mary’s College of Maryland alumni are pioneering a new way to grow oysters with the help of a research grant from a Maryland industry group.

Shore Thing Shellfish, a startup company based on St. George Island, promoted the project during a press conference this month as a potential game-changer in the region’s oyster restoration effort and commercial oyster trade.

Maryland Industrial Partnerships contributed money to the company to help kick-start what it called a collaborative project to explore alternative technology in the oyster business.

Traditionally, free-swimming oyster larvae are placed in tanks on shore filled with oyster shells. Once the larvae attach to the shells, they are bagged and transported to the water to be placed.

Kevin Boyle, a 2007 alumnus of St. Mary’s County, said the business first tried planting oysters on leased bottom in 2010 in St. George Creek via the traditional way of dumping oyster shell with spat, or baby oysters, already attached into the water.

That same leased area will be used to try out a new idea, called “in-situ” method, which basically involves setting up a temporary breeding pool right in the river.

The group will build a large, approximate 10-foot diameter fiberglass cylinder and place that on the river’s bottom. The bottomless tank is tall enough that it will protrude from the surface, and will have a solar-powered aerator to keep the water inside moving.

Shore Thing Shellfish workers will dump layers of oyster shell into the container to rest on the river’s bottom. The group will then add directly into the water oyster larvae, which will attach to the shell within two days, Boyle said.

The cylinder is then removed, leaving a fertile oyster bar.

The group hopes to try the method for the first time next summer.

Martha Connolly, director of Maryland Industrial Partnerships, said that for about 25 years MIPS has matched companies with researchers to help solve problems. This is the first project the partnership has used St. Mary’s College professors, who will act as the research side of the equation.

MIPS, in conjunction with the Department of Natural Resources, announced it will contribute to the college about $81,000 to help fund the project. Shore Thing Shellfish will provide about $10,000 in cash plus another $40,000 of in-kind labor or equipment use, Boyle said.

Once the project is completed and tested, the company will manage and own the idea along with any profits from the oysters.

Bob Paul, a biology professor, who is leading the college’s efforts, said that the water quality in the St. Mary’s River is impaired, adding that it can serve, “like a small microcosm of the larger [Chesapeake] bay’s issues.”

He said that improving the oyster population will also help improve the water quality as more oysters filter out impurities and excess nutrients.

“This river is critical to who we are” as a college and as a community, President Joseph Urgo said.

Urgo said that no one should forget how important “place” is in education. He said that the St. Mary’s River inspires artists as well as scientists, and that it is important for the college to play a role in helping to clean up the “living laboratory.”

Mandy Burch, a 2001 alumna, said Shore Thing Shellfish’s project can help improve the health of the water, contribute to the economy and enhance recreational activities on the water.

Boyle, Burch, Brian Russell, a 2008 alumnus, and his father, waterman Sheldon Russell, who are all part of Shore Thing Shellfish, said that the “in-situ” method is more cost effective and environmentally friendly.

The method could possibly extend beyond the state into the aquaculture of the Gulf Coast and the East and West Coast of the United States, according to those associated with the project.

jyeatman@somdnews.com