By Paul W. Gillespie -- The Capital Andrew Murdza of Pasadena shows off 7-month-old oysters at his oyster-growing operation in Shady Side. Mr. Murdza is the inventor of the Oyster Hotel, which grows oysters near the top of the water column. He said growing oysters near the surface increases their survival rate and will go a long way toward cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and Magothy River.

Andrew Murdza thinks he has key to cleaning up Chesapeake Bay

By ALLISON BOURG, Staff Writer
The Captal, December 27, 2007

Standing on the shore of Parish Creek in the West River, Andrew Murdza ran his hands through a bin containing hundreds of 7-month-old oysters. These oysters are the key to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, he said. But first, they have to be able to thrive underwater.

The Pasadena man said his Oyster Hotel - a floating cage of barley grass and mesh bags he cooked up about three years ago when he founded Oyster King 1 Inc. - is the answer.

Mr. Murdza has set up shop at Discovery Village in Shady Side, the former Johns Hopkins Biotech Lab and Sonar Buoy Test Center.

He plans to open an oyster birthing lab there by next year, which Chesapeake Bay Foundation officials said could supplement the University of Maryland's hatchery on the Eastern Shore.

Wearing a white lab coat and talking rapidly, Mr. Murzda is eager to show off the creation that won him the title of 2007 Innovator of the Year from The Daily Record business journal in Baltimore.

The Oyster Hotel is a cage filled with barley straw, which is a contaminant filter. Inside the cage is a mesh bag filled with between 500 and 600 oyster spat, or baby oysters. The mesh protects the oysters from predators, Mr. Murdza said.

He then drops the hotel in the top 18 inches of the water, where oxygen and nutrient contents are highest. Oysters are often planted on the bottom of the water.

"You get it?" he said. "We raise oysters different than anyone else on the Chesapeake Bay."

You can, too, for a price. Oyster King 1 charges residents $500 to place an Oyster Hotel beneath their dock or in non-navigable waters. Technicians will then visit the hotel sites four times a year, monitoring the oysters' growth.

Once they grow to adult size, then they'll be planted on reefs where they can work their magic.

Oysters are a natural water filter, but decades of over-harvesting have left the bay murky. Diseases such as Dermo and MSX that affect oysters have also wiped out the population.

In the past year, Mr. Murdza planted about 87,000 oysters in 175 different locations in the bay and in the Magothy River. After six months, he tested to see how many survived.

All but three were alive.

"It was the most beautiful thing. I knew we were going to do some good," he said. "But if you had told me it would be about 100 percent ... you can't ask for more than that."

Mr. Murdza said it could take upward of $1 million to open the hatchery, which will have about 15 incubators. He's working with a team of private investors to foot the bill, and he hopes the facility will eventually spawn 50 million baby oysters.

"By summer, we'll be able to forecast exactly when we'll have that 50 million," Mr. Murdza said.

He's quick to note that none of those oysters are for harvesting and eating. They're all going back into the bay to purify it, he said.

He and Richard Pelz, owner of Circle C Oyster Ranchers Association Inc. in St. Mary's County, co-founded the Chesapeake Oysters Guild about a year and a half ago.

Mr. Pelz has been using his own brand of floating oyster reefs for close to 20 years. That method, which he said the Japanese have been using since 1917, triples oyster survival rates.

Yet many oyster growers remain skeptical.

"It goes totally against tradition. Oysters are normally found on the bottom," Mr. Pelz said. "I had one guy tell me that if God intended oysters to be on the top, he would have put them on the top. You can quote me on that."

Stephanie Reynolds, a fisheries biologist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the idea of growing oysters near the top of the water column is "tried and true."

"That very much parallels the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's oyster-gardening program," Ms. Reynolds said.

Residents in the program pay $75 to grow spat in cages alongside their docks. After nine months, the adult oysters are planted on sanctuary reefs, where they have a better chance of surviving than if they were taken immediately from a hatchery and planted, according to the foundation.

The most exciting thing about Oyster King 1 is Mr. Murdza's plans for a hatchery, Ms. Reynolds said. Nearly all of the oyster larvae in the state come from the University of Maryland's Horn Point facility, she said.

"Restoration efforts as a whole need a good, steady supply of larvae," she said. "Oyster restoration has definitely picked up steam, but it needs to expand. We're down to only a few percent of historic levels, and we need to get to a point where we're really affecting the population."

A private hatchery is a step in the right direction, Ms. Reynolds said.

Paul Spadaro, president of the Magothy River Association, said Mr. Murdza's intentions are good. But he questions whether he can put enough spat in the water to really make a difference.

"I think at the end of the day, he just wants to put oysters in the water," Mr. Spadaro said. "But it's the volume of oysters that really matter."

The Magothy River Association wants to plant 250 million oysters in the river to clear it up. The group said it needs about 125 million living oysters to make a difference, but half of all planted oysters die initially, Mr. Spadaro said.

There's also been a big problem with oysters not reproducing, and no one really knows why, he said.

Still, "every little bit helps," he said.

"I just wonder if people are going to pay $500 (to use an Oyster Hotel), when the Chesapeake Bay Foundation does the same thing for $75," Mr. Spadaro said.

Mr. Murdza had been living on the shore of the bay for nearly four decades when he began to think about ways to clean it up. A former business owner who now raises Arabian horses on his Mountain Road farm, he's no novice when it comes to inventing things.

In 1964, he founded the fabrication company Precision Plastics Inc. He holds a patent for the G-Deck Lentel system, a sheering machine used in building construction.

At 72, he's still working seven days a week.

"I'm the guy that likes to work," Mr. Murdza said.

And he also likes to observe things. Oysters are just his latest obsession.

He rattles off statistics about how fast oysters filter water. One oyster can clean 2 gallons of water per hour, or up to 48 gallons each day.

"You get it?" he said, repeating his favorite catchphrase.

Mr. Murdza wants everyone else to get it, too. His plans for his 26-foot-by-128-foot lab include space for classrooms where people of all ages can come to learn about oysters.

"I want murals on the walls. I want them to be beautiful," he said.

He gets most excited of all when speaking of his plans to teach children about oysters. Mr. Murdza's latest brainstorm is a children's cartoon featuring - you guessed it - talking oysters. "The Moppers" could be the next Sponge Bob Square Pants, he said.

He even has a slogan in mind for his "mopper heroes."

"Give an oyster a place to stay, and in exchange he'll clean up the bay," he said.

(Revised Dec 2007)