Our Bay: Gardeners plant oysters on sanctuary reefs

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, Published 06/19/10

TOP: Courtesy of Bob Whitcomb, BOTTOM: South River Federation TOP: Watermen Brian Gross and Colbey Gross load up their workboat with oysters and oyster gardening volunteers from Whitehall Creek for an oyster planting on a sanctuary in the Severn River.
BOTTOM: After one year of being tended to by volunteer oyster gardeners, this is what baby oysters look like before being planted on a sanctuary in the South River.

For months, through all of terrible snow and ice, hundreds of "oyster gradeners" dutifully tended their shellfish charges.

They checked them out, rinsed off sediment and algae and crossed their fingers for the baskets of oysters hanging from their docks.

And in the past few weeks, oyster gardeners bid farewell to their oysters after raising them for several months. The oysters are being planted on sanctuary reefs in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers, where they'll hopefully grow, reproduce and filter the water.

Along the way, volunteer oyster-growers have learned about the troubled shellfish and had a small hand in restoring the species.

"There's a benefit to the oysters and a benefit to the people," said Stephanie Westby, who runs an oyster gardening program for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Thousands of volunteers raised millions of oysters in Maryland during the past year, primarily through the state's Marylanders Grow Oysters program, as well as the bay foundation's program.

Some smaller companies and organizations also have Marylanders growing oysters.

Through Marylanders Grow Oysters, 6,400 cages of baby oysters were raised on 12 rivers throughout the state. That adds up to about 2.5 million oysters, said Chris Judy, who runs the program for the Department of Natural Resources.

The bay foundation's gardeners are on track to raise more than 200,000 oysters,Westby said.

In both programs, the year-old oysters are placed on sanctuary oyster reefs that are off-limits to harvesting.

Seeing the results

This month, efforts to collect and plant the oysters are in full swing.

Don Karren raised five cages of oysters off his pier on Whitehall Creek north of Annapolis.

Working with the Marylanders Grow Oysters program and the Severn River Association, Karren was among 53 members of the Whitehall Creek Conservancy who raised 110 cages of oysters. They enlisted the help of watermen Brian Gross and Colbey Gross to collect the oysters and deliver them to a sanctuary reef earlier this month.

Karren said he enjoyed the meeting of two worlds - environmentalists and watermen - and thought the cooperation was beneficial for both parties.

"We don't see that very much. It's always us against them, or the state against them - conflict, conflict, conflict," Karren said.

The Whitehall oyster gardeners were so excited that they plan to enlist their neighbors on Meredith Creek and Mill Creek for the next batch of oysters. Karren said the draw of oyster gardening is the ability to do something tangible to improve the environment.

"I wanted to do something. Here's something you can do and see the results," he said. "You can pull up the oyster cage and see the little oysters."

Oyster gardeners on the South River also teamed with a waterman, John Orme, to help collect oysters and plant them on a sanctuary in Glebe Bay earlier this month.

More than 80 volunteers raised oysters on the South River, said Cindy Wallace, who coordinated the effort for the South River Federation. She expects even more to sign up for next year.

"People are really excited about doing something," Wallace said.

Oyster Gardening Expands

The Marylanders Grow Oysters program will expand into more rivers for the 2010-2011 growing season.

Seven tributaries will be added to the program, to bring the total to 19.

Locally, the new tributaries include Bodkin Creek in north county, Cox Creek off Eastern Bay on Kent Island and the Chester River. The Magothy, Severn and South rivers already are participating.

Marylanders Grow Oysters is run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, in cooperation with the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the University of Maryland and scores of local watershed groups.

Marylanders Grow Oysters is free for participants, because the costs — about $300,000 this year — are absorbed by the state.

To sign up for next year’s growing season, contact the department at cjudy@dnr.state.md.us.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s oyster gardening program does not have geographic limits. A donation to cover the cost of materials is required, however.

CBF oyster gardening workshops will be held in the fall. For information, visit www.cbf.org/oysters.

Small fraction

Getting more people involved in oyster restoration is as important - or even more important - than the ecological contribution of oysters.

In fact, citizen oyster growing programs are often the target of criticism for their small contribution to the huge problem of the Chesapeake's badly depleted oyster population.

The 2.5 million oysters raised by bay residents is just a fraction of the total number of oysters raised for restoration projects each year.

The University of Maryland's Horn Point Lab in Cambridge, where the baby oysters are grown, created 750 million "spat" last year.

The lab plans to top the 1 billion mark after an expansion is complete later this year. Most of those oysters are planted in the water by large ships that are piled high with millions of oysters.

In comparison, having homeowners dangle small cages with oysters isn't exactly the most efficient way to get more oysters in the bay.

But supporters of the oyster-raising programs say the educational focus of the effort is valuable.

Raising oysters helps people become engaged in restoring the oyster population and improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

"It's main contribution is citizen involvement, motivating people to care not just for oysters, but for the bay and the tributary they live in," Judy said.

(Revised June 2010)