Cooperative Oxford Laboratory’s 60th Anniversary

It all started with disease and a dollar…

It’s the mid 50s and oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay are dwindling. There are mass mortalities in Chesapeake and Delaware Bays and local economies are stagnating. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Bureau of Commercial Fisheries opened a temporary facility in Annapolis with experts on staff to investigate oyster diseases, MSX and Dermo. A more direct access to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay for research was provided in October 1958 when, for $1, Johnson Grymes donates the former Tidewater Inn Beach House and 11 acres of Bachelor Point Farm on the Tred Avon River in Oxford to the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries to build a Chesapeake Bay Fisheries Research Lab. By 1960, a brand-new laboratory on 11 acres with four acres of experimental ponds at a cost $350,000, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Biological Laboratory in Oxford is established to assist the oyster industry.

An aerial photograph shows the Cooperative Oxford Lab in 2016.

Since 1961, annual sampling of important oyster bars has provided managers information needed on the status of disease in oysters within Maryland portions of Chesapeake Bay. Research at the lab expanded soon after to include surf clam aquaculture. By the mid-1960s, there are four programs, Shellfish Mortality, Surf Clam Biology, Shellfish Culture, and Shellfish Ecology. During the 70s and 80s, laboratory scientists were credited with new discoveries in disease in many Bay species, including oysters, clams, blue crabs and striped bass.

In 1987, the lab became the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory (COL) through an agreement between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR) to share the operation of the facility and to foster opportunities for joint research on the health of marine organisms. To better address the needs for effective science in the Chesapeake Bay, NOAA and MD DNR re-evaluated this agreement in 2005, and the US Coast Guard (USCG) became an associate partner.

COL’s current mission is to bring together the unique combination of science, response, and management capabilities of its partners to meet their respective missions and address science and management challenges. It does this by continuing to study oysters but also by conducting ecosystem assessments, investigating ecosystem services, fish and wildlife health and habitat restoration.

COL investigates, tracks, and projects how the environment will respond to different land use and development scenarios. It identifies sources of bacterial pathogens and forecasts when and where pathogens are likely to be a problem. This allows health officials to alert the public. The lab is also examining how land use is linked to the growth of anti-microbial resistant bacteria and dead zones in the Bay. The lab also investigates health problems of fish, shellfish, and other aquatic life. COL tracks and predicts the impact of diseases on Maryland’s fisheries and the Atlantic Coast. This science can then be used to develop management strategies. The lab is also part of the National Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Network.

The lab empowers Maryland’s environmental educators by introducing them to the cutting-edge science and technology developed by the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory and its partners through COL’s Environmental Science Training Center. This science can then be used to develop management strategies. The COL partnership and its science programs identify and evaluate actions and policies to protect, restore, and secure the health of the Chesapeake Bay and other threatened coastal marine ecosystems. For more information, contact Gretchen Messick at

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