Our Bay: Oyster gardening gains popularity
More Marylanders pitching in to help restore depleted oyster populationBy PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
They're small and smelly and voracious eaters of yucky stuff in the water. And everyone agrees we need more of them in the Chesapeake Bay: oysters.
Regular Marylanders are stepping up to do their own small part to boost the bay's flagging oyster population. They're signing up in droves for oyster-growing programs offered by nonprofit groups, businesses and the government.
"People understand oysters are critical to the bay," said Bill Goldsborough, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has been offering "oyster gardening" programs in Maryland and Virginia for 12 years.
Since 1997, the foundation's oyster gardeners in Maryland have raised 5 million oysters that have been planted on sanctuary reefs that are off-limits to harvesting.
While the bay foundation was one of the earliest to offer oyster growing, programs have multiplied in the past few years.
Each program varies slightly but adheres to the same basic idea: tiny lab-created oysters are placed in the water in some sort of cage or floating contraption. Floating in the water, the oysters are safe from predators and less likely to become fouled with sediment or muck.
For the nonprofit and government programs, the oysters are collected - usually in late spring or early summer - for planting on a sanctuary reef.
For programs run by private businesses, it's up to the grower to decide what to do with the oysters.
And while it costs money to sign up to raise oysters, oyster growers can see benefits at tax return time.
Payments made to nonprofits like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for joining oyster growing programs are generally tax-deductible.
And since 2002, Maryland has offered a tax credit of up to $500 for growing oysters for aquaculture or restoration.
In 2007, 259 Marylanders claimed the credit, according to the Office of the Comptroller. In 2006, a total of 264 people claimed the credit. The totals for 2008 haven't yet been tallied.
Some of the private businesses price their oyster-growing systems at $500 as a result of the tax credit. They advertise that the net cost to the oyster grower is zero because of the tax credit.
Both nonprofit groups and private businesses report increased interest in oyster growing in recent years, in part because it's a hands-on activity where participants can see the benefits of the work they're doing.
Jon Farrington, proprietor of Johnny Oyster Seed, a private business in Southern Maryland, said he's on track to double his sales from 50 last year to more than 100 this year.
"There's a lot of interest these days," said Farrington, who sells oysters in a floating device called the Revolution. "It seems like interest has exploded. In part, it might be because of the governor's initiative. People want to grow oysters."
Richard Pelz, founder of Circle-C Oyster Ranching Association in Southern Maryland, sold 500 oyster-filled floats last year. "It's been growing," he said.
Bruce and Pat Kreutzer are caring for four cages of oysters in Wells Cove off of Spa Creek through the state's new Marylanders Grow Oysters program. A few years ago, they were Chesapeake Bay Foundation oyster gardeners.
"Everybody wants to do something and stop doing studies," Bruce Kreutzer said. "This is something someone can do."
As a member of the Spa Creek Conservancy, Kreutzer recruited neighbors and others to join Marylanders Grow Oysters and was impressed with the participation rate.
"Very few people turned us down," he said. "People have been very forthcoming."
Marylanders Grow Oysters is the newest oyster-growing program in the state.
It started in 2008-2009 with a trial run on the Tred Avon River on the Eastern Shore, and this year expanded to several more rivers.
Over the past month, Department of Natural Resources employees worked with local environmental and community groups to distribute 5,000 cages to volunteer growers around the bay.
Combined, the cages contained somewhere between 1.5 million and 2.5 million baby oysters, called "spat." That makes the state the biggest player, by far, in the oyster-gardening world.
"It's home-based grassroots oyster enhancement," said Chris Judy, who runs the Marylanders Grow Oysters program for the state and is familiar with the other nonprofit and for-profit growing programs.
"They all contributed to the enhancement of oysters," he said.
With the state's entry into oyster gardening, the number of oysters raised each year will be boosted significantly, from the thousands into the millions. But it's still a drop in the bucket.
Large-scale oyster restoration efforts often involve millions of baby oysters dumped onto reefs in a matter of hours. For example, the bay foundation lead a planting of 9 million oysters in the Severn River over two days this summer.
Still, the contributions of individuals and families who raise oysters are important, Judy said.
"A person here, a person there," he said. "A cage here, a cage there. It maybe doesn't look impressive, but collectively, a significant number of oysters are planted and the sanctuary is enhanced."
There's also the less-tangible benefit of increased awareness about the plight of oysters and their role in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.
Oysters are the bay's great filter feeder, clearing up gallons upon gallons of water daily. Oyster reefs also are part of the food chain and offer a home for all sorts of marine critters.
But the bay's oyster population is at depressingly low levels - 1 to 2 percent of historic levels - due to past overharvesting, disease and pollution.
Oyster gardeners get to see the bivalves at work, growing and filtering water. When oyster cages are lifted from the water, usually a variety of marine life is wiggling among the shells.
"We recognize up-front there are two goals to oyster gardening," said Goldsborough of the bay foundation. "One, of course, is producing oysters for restoration, growing them through their more sensitive younger stages to a hardier adult stage and planting them. The other one, and more importantly, is involving citizens in growing oysters … They understand the importance of oysters."
Stephan Abel coordinates government-funded oyster restoration programs as head of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. He thinks oyster growers might be inspired to get more involved in restoring the Chesapeake Bay.
"By engaging on this small program, perhaps they'll think twice on some of the other vehicles that have equal or more benefits, like fertilizer on their yard or upgrading their septic system or participating in the permits system," he said. "Ultimately, it's people who will make the bay better."
The costs of raising oysters may be eligible for a $500 Maryland tax credit. Check the Maryland Office of the Comptroller or a tax professional for details.
(Revised October 2009)