By Bob Whitcomb
Saving the Bay is such an overwhelming concept that it’s difficult to know where to begin, let alone do something significant to contribute to the effort. When governors and 10-year programs don’t succeed, it can be frustrating for the individual to believe that installing a rain barrel or cutting back on fertilizer can make much of a difference.
Yet there’s a program that gives back measurable results for each contribution, and it is most active right in our own backyard. This is the Marylanders Grow Oysters Program (MGO) now entering its fifth year with hundreds of volunteers. How does the lowly oyster give back that feeling of accomplishment, you ask?
Much has been written about the oysters’ role in making the Chesapeake the most productive estuary in the world. There once were oyster reefs so large that they were navigational hazards, particularly to the 18th and 19th century wooden sailing vessels that provided the successful commercial backbone to the growth of agriculture and industry around the Chesapeake. A mature oyster can filter a gallon of water an hour, and back in Captain John Smith’s time, it is believed they filtered the entire Bay’s waters in three to six days. But overharvesting and disease have reduced the oyster stock to less than 2 percent of that level, and many programs have been launched to restore the Bay’s filtering workhorse.
Many involved in these restoration efforts believe that the Chesapeake cannot be restored to 18th century condition unless the oyster is repopulated to a significant portion of its once healthy stock, because a natural filtering organism is a requisite to a restored Bay. Of course, we need government to reduce sediment, nutrient and other pollutants, but they need us to help restore the oyster.
If you own a pier, know someone who does or have access to a community pier, then you can be part of this restoration program. The MGO, sponsored by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), partners with organizations on more than 20 tributaries throughout the Maryland shore of the Chesapeake. The Horn Point Lab, run by the University of Maryland in Cambridge, has developed a unique approach to encouraging oysters to spawn in a controlled environment and last year “hatched” 880 million oyster babies that are called spat. They attach themselves to a mature shell, and are referred to “spat on shell.” They are bagged and delivered to the participating organizations by the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP). (The need for suitable oyster shells is so great ORP has started the Shell Recycling Alliance, recruiting used shells from restaurants and individuals.)
The Severn River Association (SRA) has recruited more than 380 oyster gardeners from Whitehall Bay, up the Severn to Herald Harbor, and down to Lake Ogleton. As one of DNR’s original partners, SRA has identified coordinators throughout the watershed, each with responsibility for distributing the spat to their volunteers. DNR provides free cages (constructed by state prisoners), and ORP delivers the spat to each distribution point on the river.
How do volunteers help this program? Basically a volunteer is providing a safe, protected environment for the baby oysters to grow, harden their shells and survive their first critical part of the year from September through June. Then they will be ready to go into the wild of the oyster reef and help filter our river’s waters. During their first year, the volunteer will need to raise the cage out of the water every couple weeks to clean off other growth and ensure good water circulation. It’s a simple “tea bagging” and “shaking” routine that takes but a couple minutes per cage. Volunteers keep their spat until the next Spring when a collection effort is launched to gather all the 1-year old oysters and place them on a permanent oyster reef. For the Severn, the SRA has a designated reef near the Route 50 bridge that was properly prepared five years ago, and where each year’s juvenile oysters have been planted.
As the Severn River, like several other watersheds, has been designated as a hardshell sanctuary, the oysters on the reef are protected from harvesting. They will grow to create a marine sanctuary as an attractive habitat for young fish, mussels, crabs and other marine life.
For each cage that they tend, volunteers help nurture approximately 300 new oysters to add to the growing reef. Many sponsor multiple cages, so if they had three cages, they’ve enabled the filtering of 1,000 more gallons per day in their nearby watershed.
Bob is a past president of the Severn River Association, and is active with several Bay restoration projects. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org