This Weeks Take: Marylanders can help with oysters

By CHRIS JUDY, For The Capital
Published 08/15/09

At this writing, I have just returned from a day on the Tred Avon River in Talbot County, working with staff, partners and volunteers to collect and plant the first batch of oyster spat (young oysters) grown by citizens under a new Maryland stewardship program.

Marylanders Grow Oysters was launched by Gov. Martin O'Malley in the Tred Avon River in September 2008, one of the first projects under Maryland's new "Smart, Green & Growing" initiative. The program, which is run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was designed to encourage natural resources stewardship among citizens, enhance the local oyster population, and provide meaningful work for inmates in the Maryland correctional system.

Along the Tred Avon, 177 property owners have been tending oysters in 858 cages (built by Maryland inmates) since October 2008. This week, DNR, the Oyster Recovery Partnership and local watermen are collecting these oysters and planting them in a local sanctuary. The inaugural growers will soon be at it again with a new group of spat, continuing their stewardship.

The spat we saw were large and plentiful, indicating excellent caretaking by the Tred Avon growers. There was also an abundance of small fish, mud crabs, mussels, barnacles and other life, indicating the ecological value of oysters: they provide habitat to many bay creatures.

Today's experience was gratifying for everyone involved. The DNR staff - including Secretary John Griffin, who joined us out on the water for the oyster collection and planting - were excited to see the governor's vision go from an idea to healthy, living organisms in just over a year's time.

The citizen growers were thrilled to see the fruits of their labors being moved onto a local sanctuary and are anxiously awaiting their new spat.

The Oyster Recovery Partnership, watermen and volunteers who helped with the planting all played a key role in the process. Almost 200 bushels of oysters were planted and there are more to come since not all sites were accessible on the falling tide. Any remaining collections will be made soon.

And the inmates working under Maryland Correctional Enterprises in Hagerstown and Church Hill have been proud to be part of a program that is contributing to the health of the bay.

As the near 1-year-old Tred Avon oysters are being planted - the program the governor calls "head start for oysters" - is expanding. Leading the way in stewardship and enhancing local oyster populations, the Tred Avon oyster growers have inspired 11 new rivers to join the effort.

With the help of local coordinators, this year's program will include citizens along the Annemessex, Corsica, Magothy, lower Nanticoke, lower Patuxent, Severn, South, St. Mary's and Wicomico (Western Shore) rivers, as well as La Trappe and San Domingo creeks.

For the next nine to 12 months, waterfront property owners in these areas also will care for thousands of young spat held in sturdy wire mesh cages suspended from their piers.

The cages and spat are provided free to pier owners who contribute their time and commitment to enhance local oyster populations. In total, 5,000 cages will be distributed this month and next, with about 500 to 800 spat per cage, and approximately four cages per pier.

Tending the oysters involves rinsing the cages every two weeks to clean off silt, keeping them off the bottom at all times so they don't sink in, and making sure they are fully submerged in winter so the oysters don't freeze. After a year of protective care, the oysters will be planted in a local sanctuary closed to harvest.

The oysters for the program come from the University of Maryland hatchery at Horn Point in Cambridge and the DNR Piney Point hatchery in St. Mary's County. DNR oversees the project, with the Oyster Recovery Partnership playing a major role in leading both production and distribution. Each new river has one or more local coordinators, which are essential to the program, donating their time and energy to advertise, enroll growers, tally contact information, and help distribute oyster cages.

The Marylanders Grow Oysters Project is about inspiring citizen stewardship of the bay and helping one of the Chesapeake's most important and iconic species. As people tend oysters they are more likely to be involved to protect their watershed and the bay.

The 2009 program is full to capacity, but interested citizens can learn more and find out how to become involved next year by contacting me at cjudy@dnr.state.md.us or 410-260-8259.

Chris Judy works in the shellfish program at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

(Revised August 2009)