Fisheries Conservation

  • SERC research vessel

    Fishing for rays and sharks on the Potomac River for the Movement of Life Initiative (SERC/Jay Fleming)

  • Blue crabs support the most valuable fishery in Chesapeake Bay (SERC/Matt Ogburn)

  • River herring

    Monitoring River Herring spawning runs in tributaries of Chesapeake Bay (SERC/Matt Ogburn)

  • Choptank River oyster reef

    Working Land and Seascapes is exploring the ecology of oyster reefs in Chesapeake Bay (SERC/Keira Heggie)

  • Sampling underwater grasses

    Studying the ecology of submerged aquatic vegetation  for MarineGEO (SERC/Liana Quinones)

Principal Investigator

The Fisheries Conservation Lab investigates the ecology, management, and conservation of marine and estuarine fisheries. We depend on fisheries for many things including food, employment, recreational opportunities, and cultural identity, but fishing and aquaculture rank among the greatest human impacts on marine ecosystems. Finding a balance between harvest and conservation of fishery species and mitigating the impacts of fisheries on marine ecosystems will be key to sustaining productive, resilient, and biodiverse coastal and marine ecosystems for future generations.

Our interdisciplinary research focuses on providing the best scientific information available to inform fisheries management and conservation decision-making at scales from local communities to global institutions. We apply field and laboratory experiments, animal tracking technologies, models, long-term observational studies, and historical perspectives to address fisheries issues including sustainability of fished populations, altered food webs and trophic interactions, linkages between habitat and fisheries, invasive species, and climate change. We engage in collaborative research through:

For more information, check out our 2020 Annual Report.

For Bay Oysters, Protection Plus Restoration Creates Healthiest Reefs

Posted by KristenM on June 10th, 2021

by Kristen Minogue

Actively restoring oyster reefs—beyond simply protecting them from harvest—can create big payoffs for habitat quality and the other species that flock to them. A new study from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), published June 10 in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series, compared restored, protected and harvested areas using photos and video footage from roughly 200 sites.

Roughly a quarter of Maryland’s oyster habitat lies protected in oyster sanctuaries. But only a small fraction of those sanctuaries have undergone full-scale restorations, with reconstructed reefs and new live oyster plantings. The new paper offers an easier way to determine if those restorations are paying off.

“You’ve got to actively restore something,” said Keira Heggie, lead author of the study and a technician in SERC’s Fisheries Conservation Lab. “But if you actively restore something and then let it go by its wayside, then you’re not going to know exactly if it’s still doing well.”

The results also give a clear picture of restoration’s benefits, which have seen hot debate in recent years.

“There are people who feel like the restoration’s really working, and there’s other people who feel like it’s a lot of money that you’re throwing in the water,” said Matt Ogburn, co-author and SERC senior scientist. “Being able to have ways to collect the data to determine whichever of those outcomes happen, or something in the middle, is really important.”

Reef Scorecards

Getting good data on oyster habitats can be expensive and even destructive. Traditionally scientists have relied on diving surveys, which can take hours to perform and process. Or, they’ve used using claw-like patent tongs, which rake up parts of the reef for analysis.

Heggie, Ogburn and the Fisheries Conservation Lab came up with the video method while doing sonar surveys for fish. While their sonar equipment could pick up fish movement, it could not tell them much about the underwater habitat.

“We couldn’t see that very well with the sonar,” Ogburn said. “So we just started sticking a GoPro camera on the bottom of the sonar frame and taking pictures.”

When they discovered the footage came through clearly enough, the team decided to apply it to oyster habitat. They took their GoPro cameras to four tributaries of Maryland’s Choptank River. Three are home to large-scale restorations: Harris Creek, Little Choptank and Tred Avon. The fourth, Broad Creek, is one of Maryland’s most productive harvest areas.

The biologists collected at least two minutes of underwater video and photos from each of approximately 200 sites they surveyed. They used the videos to assign each site a “habitat score,” from zero to three. A score of zero meant the site had no hard surfaces for oysters to settle on. A one meant up to half of the area had hard surfaces. A two meant more than half of the area had hard surfaces, but those surfaces were relatively flat. A top ranking of three required something extra. Besides hard surface coverage above half, they needed complex, vertical structure that gives other creatures spaces to live or hide.

They then compared their more qualitative, video method with a more data-intense photo method. Besides yielding more precise figures on hard surface cover, the team’s photo analysis also revealed the different kinds of creatures living with the oysters.

But most importantly, the photos confirmed that Heggie and Ogburn’s quick-and-dirty video method worked. Sites with higher scores in their general video analyses also showed higher-quality habitat and more diverse species under the scrutiny of their photo analyses. And in a single day, the video team could cover five or six times more sites than divers or tong surveys could.

“It’s a really easy, fast method to go out and keep tally on how the reefs are doing,” Heggie said.

Underwater oysters

Oyster habitat in Tred Avon, one of four tributaries biologists surveyed with video cameras. Oyster reefs with more complex, vertical structure offer better habitat for other animals to live and grow. (Credit: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)

When Protection Isn’t Enough

Protected, restored reefs earned by far the highest scores for oyster habitat. In the Harris Creek sanctuary, where reef restorations were already two years old at the time of the study, 74% of the restored reefs earned a top ranking of three for hard surface coverage and vertical structure.

Harvest areas in Broad Creek and the mouth of Harris Creek sometimes scored well for hard surface coverage (20–30% of the time). However, they rarely had the taller, complex structures many underwater animals rely on. Meanwhile, protected but unrestored areas in Harris Creek did the poorest. Their top score came to two, and only 8% earned even that. Almost all the unrestored sanctuary reefs in Harris Creek had no more than half their terrain covered with hard surfaces for oysters to grow on.

Ogburn views that last finding as a message: Oyster sanctuaries can support healthy reefs, but they often need some investment.

“There certainly are places where there just isn’t good habitat for them,” he said. “And until you create that through restoration, you’re not going to have oysters there, or not have a lot.”

But when sanctuaries do have plenty of oysters, he added, the benefits will likely spillover to help the men and women working on the water.

“The hope is that by creating these sanctuaries with really healthy oyster reefs, they’ll be self-sustaining, but also produce larvae that get carried out into the harvest areas and help supplement the harvest as well,” he said.


Understanding the ecology of fisheries is critical to maintaining resilient, productive and biodiverse coastal and marine ecosystems. Fishing is an important sector of coastal economies, provides an important supply of food for human societies, and is an activity of great cultural and historical importance. But fisheries have also contributed to the decline of coastal and marine ecosystems through changes in biomass and community structure, disruption of food webs, and alteration of habitats. Using the Chesapeake Bay as a model system, we are addressing fisheries issues including the impacts of harvest, restoration, and conservation on populations, communities and ecosystems, habitat use, migrations and connectivity with other coastal ecosystems. To learn more about our fisheries ecology and conservation research, please visit the following webpages:

Our long-term studies of fish and invertebrate communities in the Rhode River, Maryland study site offer a window in the community structure and population dynamics of fish and invertebrate communities in one of the most productive ecosystems on earth, the Chesapeake Bay. Spanning more than three decades, this research tracks seasonal, annual, and decadal variation in species composition and abundance of fishes and macro-invertebrates. Sampling methods include trawling, seining, a fish weir, benthic infauna cores, and tethering experiments. The long-term descriptive data, in combination with our experimental studies, provide an unusual database for exploring populations, communities, predator-prey relationships, impacts of fisheries, and impacts of environmental variability and climate change, and other ecological processes. To learn more about our long-term research, please follow the links below:

Many species on the planet migrate during their lifetime, using different habitats during specific life stages. What habitats are most important and why? How will climate change affect migrations? What are the benefits and costs of migration to individuals? How can we best manage fisheries for migratory species? How do migratory species affect community structure and ecological processes? To learn more about our Movement of Life Initiative research, please visit our Movement of Life Initiative webpage:

Welcome to the Educator Resources page-- below are a collection of lessons, web resources, and videos arranged by subject to help you quickly find resources in your interest area to create lesson plans or activities. Maryland follows the Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 science content standards. Access the Next Generation Science Standards broken down by topic at the National Science Teachers Association website.

Are you a teacher visiting SERC? Click here to learn more about how to prepare for your field trip to our campus and other general resources!

Discover, create, and share more resources and educational experiences on the Smithsonian Learning Lab!

Lesson: Movement of Life Initiative: Discover What Makes Sharks Move
Grade 4

Lesson: Sharks and Shorelines
Grades 6-10

Activity: Ecosystem Explorer | EARTH A New Wild
Grades 5-8

Reading/ Video: SERC’s Shorelines Blog "Following the Movement of Life: Tagging Sharks and Rays"
Grades 5-7

Reading/ Video: SERC’s Shorelines Blog "Tracking the Bay’s Cownose Rays"
Grades 5-7

For more information about shark migration, check out Smithsonian's Movement of Life Initiative!

Lesson: The Blue Crab's Chesapeake Journey
Grade 9-12

Video: SERC Scientists Video from the Smithsonian Science Education Center, “How do Scientists Track and Monitor blue Crab Populations in the Chesapeake Bay?
Grades 3-8




Video: SERC Ecosystems on the Edge video by one of our scientists, called “Blue Crabs: Top Predator in Peril”
Grades 3-8




Lesson: Juvenile Oyster Disease: A Growing Problem
Grade 9-12

Video: Determining the Resiliency of Juvenile Oysters in the Chesapeake Bay
Grade 3-8