'Gardeners' bid farewell to oysters

50,000 will be planted

Alison Harbaugh - The Capital Chesapeake Bay Foundation volunteer Alan Gephardt (left) and CBF Manager of Advocacy Terry Cummings (right) look at one of the buckets of Oysters brought in by a family living on Mill Creek.

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer Chesapeake Bay Foundation staffers oohed and aahed at the oysters John Callahan dropped off at Annapolis' City Dock this week. Mr. Callahan is one of the foundation's "oyster gardeners" who raise baby oysters in cages hanging from piers.

During the nine months that gardeners tend to their crop, the oysters are protected from predators and disease and can grow big and healthy.

But not usually as big as Mr. Callahan's - his were nearly 3 inches, much larger than the rest.

He had a secret, though. His oysters were actually almost 2 years old.

"We missed last year," said Mr. Callahan, who lives on Luce Creek on the Severn River, just outside Annapolis. "So we kept them. They seemed happy."

Jen Pitz, the oyster gardening coordinator, marveled at Mr. Callahan's oysters.

"These are beautiful," she gushed. "That's nearly market size."

The oysters grown by Mr. Callahan and dozens of other volunteers ended up on the bottom of Saltworks Creek on the Severn, though they had a bit of a rough path to get there.

Some of the gardeners were supposed to join the CBF staff on a boat trip on Tuesday to drop the oysters into the water. As the 6 p.m. trip approached, the CBF crew kept a wary eye on the darkening skies and wished away the approaching lightning and thunder.

Then the wind kicked up and the skies opened, dumping a torrent of rain on Annapolis.

The rain sent oyster gardeners and CBF workers scurrying for cover and temporarily scuttled the oyster planting trip. CBF staffers were able to plant the oysters after the weather cleared, but by then the volunteers had gone home.

All told, Maryland oyster gardeners are expected to return 50,000 oysters to the foundation this week during four drop-off events.

In the past decade, Maryland and Virginia oyster gardeners have put 5 million oysters into the bay. None of them will be harvested.

"All of our gardeners' oysters go to sanctuary reefs for building up the ecosystem," Ms. Pitz said.

Oyster gardening is one small way waterfront homeowners can contribute to oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters are prized for their ability to filter pollution from the bay's waters. But development, pollution, overharvesting and disease have taken their toll on the once-vibrant oyster population.

Maggie McConnell, who lives near Sandy Point State Park, was worried that the harsh waves and winter ice would doom the oysters her family raised. Though one cage was lost, two other cages survived.

"I thought it would be a great experience for the kids," she said.

Her daughter, 7-year-old Megan, agreed. She pronounced the oysters "cool," though she couldn't really put her finger on what made them cool.

Casey Pingle of Annapolis said her three grandchildren got a kick out of the oysters raised by her husband, Rex. Mr. Pingle couldn't return the oysters himself because he was traveling out of the country.

"It's fun to do," she said. "The grandchildren love seeing Pop Pop's oysters."

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation will start its next cycle of oyster gardening in the fall. For information, visit www.cbf.org or call 410-268-8816.


(Revised June 2007)