In its death, stadium to bring life

ON THE BAY

Reef: The concrete remains of Memorial Stadium will be used to help reinvigorate the oyster population of the Chesapeake Bay.

On The Bay

April 19, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

HAVING SPENT the 1970s and 1980s in a rowhouse a block from Memorial Stadium, and much happy time in its bleachers, I was distressed to see it demolished.

I believe in recycling our sturdy old buildings. What more fitting memorial to World War II veterans than a place where battles were waged in nonlethal, crowd-pleasing fashion?

But if it had to go, one couldn't wish for a finer second life than the Chesapeake Bay oyster reef that Memorial Stadium will soon become.

This summer, about 10,000 cubic yards of its concrete, broken into hand-sized chunks, will be mounded up in 7 to 13 feet of water on Gale's Lump in the bay, about five miles northeast of Baltimore.

The rubble, tentatively dubbed Memorial Stadium Reef, will be topped with about 10 million thumbnail-sized "spat," little oysters attached to larger oyster shells.

In the years and centuries to come, if we manage the bay right, the new oyster "rock," or reef, will be a living tribute, a sanctuary for oysters whose spawn, carried by the current, will help repopulate the upper Chesapeake.

And as all manner of marine life -- from clams and worms and algae to the young of blue crabs and fish -- inhabit the protective nooks and crannies of the concrete and shells, this will attract larger predators, turning the reef into a prime summer fishing spot.

In the winter, waterfowl will feed on it.

And that's only part of what the old stadium will be doing for the bay.

Its oysters will also be filtering the water of pollutants as they feed.

It's estimated that the bay's historic oyster populations could filter the whole bay every few days.

Today's oysters, ravaged by decades of overfishing, diseases and pollution, couldn't do that in a year.

It's one reason the bay is clogged with too much floating algae, which clouds its waters, killing vital seagrass habitat and depleting aquatic oxygen.

The oyster community to be created atop the rubble of the stadium, which once anchored human communities like Waverly and Ednor Gardens-Lakeside, can't by itself reverse the bay's problems.

But it will be symbolic of a wider, continuing effort to restore oysters throughout the bay -- and a wonderful opportunity to publicize those efforts.

Tentative plans call for a waterborne dedication ceremony featuring sports heroes such as Johnny Unitas, Cal Ripken and Brooks Robinson, with maybe Chuck Thompson doing the play-by-play.

And throwing out the first shell? It probably won't be former Mayor and Gov. William Donald Schaefer, so far the only person to diss the stadium-to-reef conversion.

"It's just saying to the veterans, `we don't care about you,'" he told The Sun recently.

But we've been warring on our natural resources for centuries now.

The breakup and leveling of the bay bottom's 200,000 acres of productive oyster rocks began with commercial dredging in the early 1800s.

Now, an estimated 2,000 such acres remain, says Tom O'Connell, head of oyster restoration for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

World War II vets should be honored to join an era of restoration, a truce with nature, in which Maryland, Virginia and the federal government have committed to a daunting goal -- increasing the bay's oysters tenfold by 2010.

My guess is once he sees the possibilities, Schaefer will want to be invited on the first boat out (and he will be; as state comptroller, he will vote on the $450,000 project).

So, bring on the publicity. Oysters need every boost they can get. The current drought has made even the upper bay salty, favoring diseases like MSX and Dermo.

Last season's 140,000-bushel harvest was one of the worst on record.

There's a bright side to the higher salinity, says Charlie Frentz, director of the nonprofit Maryland Oyster Recovery Partnership.

More salt usually means excellent reproduction of oysters. This is especially critical in the fresher waters of the upper bay, planned site of the memorial reef, where good "spat sets" occur once every 10 to 12 years on average.

An ideal scenario, Frentz says, would be a big spat set this summer on the new reef, then a few wet years that depress salinity and repel disease while the memorial oysters grow and reproduce.

The reef will also be a scientific testing ground.

The state is experimenting with concrete and other alternatives to pure oyster shells, whose supply is getting shorter. Part of the reef will also test spherical concrete structures that have shown success in restoring coral reefs in Florida.

So it's farewell and welcome to an icon, Memorial Stadium, which will soon be helping breathe new life into another icon, the Chesapeake Bay.

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