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MSBA group gets word out about bay’s oysters with exhibit

When Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Hudak read an article about oysters in the Chesapeake Bay in an in-flight magazine while returning to Baltimore, he thought he might have a shell of an idea.

As Van Reiner, president and CEO of the Maryland Science Center, looks on, Michael Hudak and Anne Deady of the MSBA Leadership Academy check out the exhibit that the academy has placed at the center to increase awareness of the dwindling oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay.

Hudak suggested the Maryland State Bar Association’s Leadership Academy concentrate on conserving the filtering shellfish for its annual public service project.

The result is an exhibit on oyster conservation in the Chesapeake Bay that will be on display at the Maryland Science Center starting May 15.

The exhibit is part of the academy’s annual public service project, which members choose every year. The academy also visited Baltimore elementary and middle schools to teach students about the declining population of the oyster.

“There is a problem specifically in the Chesapeake Bay that’s a gem of this region,” said Hudak, an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore and member of this year’s leadership academy. “Some people acknowledge it, but it’s not one of the most pressing things. That’s why we want people to realize, ‘Let’s address it now.’”

The project is the academy’s first to deal with an environmental issue, Hudak said.

“We sort of wanted to do something unique, something risky,” Hudak said. “Because this hadn’t been done before that was, I guess, the point of this. It’s different, and this group wanted to take a chance on it.”

The exhibit is geared toward 8-year-olds, said academy member Anne Deady, a solo practitioner in Baltimore. Its focus is a pyramid of 10 five-gallon water jugs to demonstrate that one oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day.

There are also panels with simple facts about oysters. Visitors can lift flaps to read them. One flap reads, “What is a baby oyster called?” When the flap is flipped, visitors learn it is called a spat.

“They wanted to talk about oysters and wanted something that was bright and colorful and pretty,” said Tina Martija, graphic designer for Quatrefoil Associates, which designed the exhibit. “I just was thinking about the bay and came up with some concepts.”

Panels on the exhibit’s walls outline federal and state oyster laws and detail what the average person can do to help protect the population. There are graphics and photos depicting the oysters and the bay, as well.

“The kids can reach out and touch it,” Deady said. “That was really important to us.”

About 15 attorneys are chosen for the MSBA Leadership Academy every year and attend programs teaching leadership skills. The focus of the academy is a public service project, which members work on throughout their 12-month term. Lawyers graduate from the academy during the MSBA’s annual meeting in the summer.

Hudak had the idea for the project while flying from Florida to Baltimore last year.

“I thought, ‘Hey, I’m from that area,’” Hudak said. “‘Maybe that will be interesting.’ I never ever had any idea how important an oyster is. I don’t eat them. It’s such a little thing, but it’s so important to the environment.”

The Chesapeake Bay has lost 99 percent of its native oyster population — from over-harvesting and runoff pollution — according to the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which partnered with the MSBA on the project. Without their filtering help, the bay is dirtier.

After the academy members chose Hudak’s idea in the fall, they reached out to the Oyster Recovery Partnership and the Science Center about their idea.

“When I was approached by the group, and they said, ‘We would like to do something about oysters and what they can do for the bay,’ I was all ears,” said Van Reiner, president and CEO of the Science Center.

In January, members of the academy and the recovery group visited four schools — Cecil Elementary School, Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School, Graceland Park-O’Donnell Heights Elementary/Middle School and Moravia Park Elementary School — to teach them about the importance of oysters in the bay and the legal implications of poaching oysters and the laws protecting oysters.

“One of the things I took away from that was how shocking it was when I asked how many students had been to the Chesapeake Bay and not one child raised their hand,” Deady said. “The school was two miles away from the Inner Harbor.”

As part of the school visits, the academy and the Oyster Recovery Partnership — which is based in Annapolis — created a competition challenging students to collect oyster shells. The students at the schools collected almost 12,000 oyster shells, Hudak said. The winner of the competition will be announced at the exhibit’s opening.

“To me, one of the goals was to really help kids interact with the bay and to get to know the bay so they will want to protect it,” Deady said.

The shells will go to the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which gathers empty oyster shells (usually left over from bars and restaurants), then attaches baby oysters to the shells before planting them back in the bay.

The group raised $20,000 from lawyers and law firms to support the project and hired a design consultant from Quatrefoil, an exhibit design company in Laurel, to help construct the display.

“We were so excited,” Hudak said. “We never thought we would be able to collect that many shells and raise that much money.”

Lawyers worked with the designers and the Science Center to perfect the exhibit, Deady said. The lawyers and designers made initial drawings, and Science Center employees suggested ways to make it kid-friendly and simplify the wording of the exhibit.

Reiner said previous volunteer requests to create exhibits at the center have not worked out, and the oyster conservation exhibit is the first from an outside group in the Science Center.

“It’s very complete, and it tells a good story,” Reiner said. “I think that it’s important for people to know what oysters do other than just taste good and why trying to replenish the bay is so important to the health of the bay.”

The project for the young lawyers could continue past the academy’s end date, Hudak said.

“This is going to be a great thing,” Hudak said. “In the future, if we want to expand, we can keep on bringing in schools across Maryland and bring in field trips and challenge kids to do something on their own.”