For the besieged Bay oyster, help is bobbing beneath docks all over the Chesapeake as an army of boatowners, students and others grow gardens of bivalves.
You wouldn’t think that a bunch of oysters could bring out the mom in a person. After all, they’re not particularly cute, they smell like low tide, they don’t say much and they’re about as cuddly as a fistful of wet gravel. Yet here I am, staring down an oyster toadfish, my fingers itching for the big frying pan. The toadfish, a prehistoric-looking Chesapeake local, loves nothing more than an oyster sandwich for lunch, and he’s eyeballing my two bushels of baby bivalves in what I, the person who has nurtured them for nine months, deem an unhealthy way.
“He actually eats the oysters. He has big, strong jaws,” Captain Willy Agee is explaining to me and a bunch of Girl Scouts who are cruising across the Severn River in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s workboat Lady D. We have all toiled through the late summer, fall, winter and spring to cultivate twelve thousand or so baby oysters in floats beneath piers up and down the river. Now it’s time to chuck the fledglings from the nest and onto a reconstructed oyster bar near Tolley Point, where, we hope, they will spend the rest of their reef-potato lives filtering water, growing long in the shell and making lots more baby oysters.
Agee gestures toward the toadfish, which is floating in a clear plexiglass tank near the aft helm. The boat’s crew dredged him up earlier today and he’s having the bottom-dweller adventure of a lifetime, hanging out with the bipeds for the afternoon, working on his tan.
“He doesn’t do big ones, he does small ones. These guys,” Agee points at the 13 bushels of oysters awaiting their trip to the majors, “I think he’d go through them.”
I glare at the fish.
“Hey Stew,” Agee calls to Stewart Harris, CBM’s fisheries restoration coordinator. “Can we put him out on this bar here?”
“So he’ll eat all the oysters that just grew?” another gardener-mother says indignantly. Clearly she feels Agee’s maternal instinct needs some cultivating as well.
“It’s all part of the circle, man,” says Agee. “It’s all part of the circle.”
Unfortunately for the Chesapeake Bay’s oysters, the circle has, in recent decades, developed some pretty cavernous potholes in the form of the diseases MSX and Dermo, water pollution, over-harvesting, and the steady use of patent tongs and hydraulic dredges, which have, bit by bit, dismantled oyster reef habitat.
Not even the NASDAQ has crashed as hard as the Bay’s oyster population. In the mid- to late 1800s, it wasn’t unusual to see annual harvests of 100 million pounds, and oyster reefs rose tall enough from the Bay bottom to be considered legitimate hazards to navigation. Even as late as 1980, watermen still landed about 25 million pounds of oysters a year. In the 1990s, those harvests dropped to the hundreds of thousands of pounds. Ninety-nine percent of the Bay’s oyster population disappeared in one century.
This is grim news, and not just for oyster gourmands. They may not look like much, but oysters are the James Browns of the Chesapeake-the hardest working critters in the Bay business. Just hanging around and eating, an adult oyster can filter 40 to 50 gallons of water a day. Single-celled algae is their meat and potatoes, and without enough oysters bellying up to the bar, too much algae flourishes, dies and consumes oxygen as it decays, leading to one of the Bay’s biggest problems-lack of oxygen, especially along the bottom, where many other species live. Oyster reefs also provide perfect digs for a variety of other aquatic life, their three-dimensional structures acting like underwater apartment complexes.
Fundamentally humble and defenseless, oysters are the ultimate Bay underdogs. I’d been eating them shamelessly for a long time, slurped on the half-shell with a dab of horseradish, knocked back with a beer chaser at Middleton’s, crunched in fritters, bathed in creamy stews. But about a year ago, I decided this simply wasn’t a fair fight. It was time to do something to help the beleaguered little buggers. It was time to join the Oyster Corps.
It’s a mid-September Saturday, and I’m back in school attending a CBF oyster gardening workshop. My husband Johnny and I, along with our two-and-a-half-year-old son Kaeo, have joined about 30 other people to listen to Stewart Harris explain why growing oysters is a cool thing to do. It’s not a hard sell (except to Kaeo, who’d rather go outside and check out the huge tractor that’s working the neighboring field).
The idea of enlisting average Joes and Janes to cultivate oysters, which would then be used to help re-establish oyster reefs around the Bay, began in the mid-1990s, and it has taken off like a Tiger Woods tee shot.
The foundation joined with the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the Oyster Recovery Partnership to form the Oyster Alliance. By 1997, CBF had programs operating in Maryland and Virginia.
Virginia’s program began with 23 school classes and 50 volunteers, says Rob Brumbaugh, CBF’s Virginia oyster gardening coordinator. That first year the students grew 100,000 oysters that were placed on re-established reefs. By this year, the foundation had trained 275 gardeners and thousands of schoolchildren in 90 middle and high school classes who this spring planted half a million oysters on state reefs. The foundation’s Maryland oyster program began with 150 gardeners, and as of this year more than 400 people are gardening, Harris says, not including a student oyster corps of thousands. Over the Maryland program’s life so far, gardeners have planted nearly 800,000 oysters.
Along with the CBF program, several other organizations have sprung up in both states to promote oyster gardening. Mike Osterling, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s liaison to the state’s oyster gardening groups, calls it a phenomenon. He guestimates there are between 1,000 and 2,000 people growing oysters in Virginia, not including all the school groups that are doing it.
“We have a lot of floats out there,” he says.
The basic concept is pretty simple: Grow baby oysters in a hatchery, give them to people who have access to waterfront, help those people build a nursery for the oysters, explain how to care for them, ask the people to measure them a couple times over nine or ten months and send in their results, plant the adolescent oysters on a local oyster bar in the spring, then give the gardeners another batch of babies in the fall. Voila!-the Oyster Corps, a small army of oyster gardeners, Bay-wide.
At the workshop, we spend about an hour going over basic oyster ecology and biology. We learn, for example, that your average oyster grows about an inch a year in the first three years of its life and then a half-inch each year thereafter. Harris tells us that Captain John Smith wrote about finding oysters the size of dinner plates, and that he’s seen some fossilized shells 10 inches long. But no one really knows how long oysters live.
We also learn that oysters have a pretty interesting, if schizophrenic, sex life. Most of them start out as guys and then turn into females as they grow older and wiser. In a perfect world, they all camp out on the same reef in close proximity so their eggs and sperm can mingle and make more oysters before dissipating through the water.
Fertilized oyster larvae swim around until they find something hard to settle down on for the rest of their lives. This is when they officially become “spat” and really start growing. A craggy hard surface like an oyster reef is critical. Decades of harvesting using hydraulic dredges and patent tongs, which scrape and grab hunks of the reef to harvest oysters, slowly chipped away at the Bay’s huge oyster reefs, making it harder and harder for larval oysters to set and grow. Re-establishing those reefs is another major goal for organizations and agencies like the Oyster Alliance and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
“Oysters are particular about where they live,” says Harris, (and you can hardly blame them since once they’re there, they’re there.) “Trying to establish a bed where there was none won’t work.” The alliance has used old maps that show where huge oyster reefs once stood and has begun rebuilding those areas. Since our oysters will be grown on a tributary of the Severn River, they’ll be planted on a re-established bar at the river’s mouth.
After about two hours of oyster education, we get to the fun part: building our floats. We paid $75 for the foundation’s oyster gardening class, and that got us all the materials we needed to build the oyster nursery: wire mesh, PVC pipe, waterproof glue and wire ties. Harris shows us the construction technique, and we all go outside and start building while I try to prevent Kaeo from getting that two-part purple glue all over himself and everyone else.
When we’ve finished our floats, Harris hands out the goodies: two pillowcase-size mesh bags full of what looks like a bunch of old oyster shells. But on each of those shells are tiny oysters, the size of pencil eraser heads at the moment. Some of them are native to the Choptank River, ordinary old Crassostrea virginicas, bred at UMCES’s Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, Md. But others are specially bred to resist-or so we hope-the devastating diseases MSX and Dermo.
The parasitic disease MSX first came to the Bay in 1957, after wiping out the Delaware Bay’s oysters in 1956. Scientists still don’t quite know how MSX is transmitted, though it does slow down in water that’s less salty. So a rainy spring and summer is good news for the oyster beds.
Dermo arrived in the Chesapeake in the 1980s, and by the early ‘90s, every major oyster bed in the Bay was infected. Dermo slowly weakens and kills oysters in their second or third year and as the oyster tissue rots, the Dermo parasite is released back into the water. Nearby oysters then ingest the parasites and become infected, usually in late summer and fall.
The so-called CROSBreed babies (Cooperative Regional Oyster Selective Breeding) have been bred from local oysters that have somehow survived in areas of high disease. Scientists hope these survivors will pass on their native disease resistance to their young. Harris says the foundation will monitor how well each type of oyster grows in our nurseries.
September 29, 1999
Two weeks have passed since we launched our two thousand or so little buddies under my sister-in-law’s dock on Weems Creek. A lot has happened since then-Hurricane Floyd, for instance. I was worried about the storm surge squishing the float beneath the dock so Johnny moved it into a slip. Hurricanes being the contrarians they are, though, Floyd managed to provoke an abnormally low tide instead (actually it was the 40-knot northwesterlies filling in behind the storm that sucked the water from the creek).
Harris told us that at two weeks we should examine our babies. If the spat had grown to fingernail size, it was time to turn them loose into the big wide world of the oyster float. So we climb down onto the floating dock and, on our hands and knees, we peer into the float. Right away, I can see a fat jimmy crab hanging upside down on the float’s bottom. Above the mesh bags of oysters, schools of tiny, almost transparent fish zig and zag. Some of them even look like little shrimp. Our personal oyster reef is already attracting other species, and I decide I’ll need a reference book soon to be able to name them all.
The float looks pretty clean, but when we move the bags clouds of reddish silt show that the shells could use a rinse. We haul the float onto the floating dock and, through the mesh, examine a few of the old oyster shells that are home to the spat. Kaeo’s first thought is to chuck one of the big shells into the water, but we explain this would defeat our purpose. Actually, since he’s only two-and-a-half, we just tell him “no” and explain later.
The new arrivals have grown. We slice the bags and gingerly spread the shells out across the float’s bottom, looking for evidence of pests like flat worms and also just getting used to seeing what the oyster spat looks like. We decide to leave the float out for the night so any unwanted vermin will dry out and expire; this is called desiccation, and you should do it every two weeks or so during the fall, spring and summer. As long as they’re not in hot, direct sun, the oysters can manage just fine for 24 hours or so out of the water-to them, it’s just a long, low tide. Johnny stops back first thing the next morning and returns the float to the water, reporting that all was well and no pesky critters like racoons had been around. So far, so good.
October 18, 1999.
Oyster guilt: the way you feel when you should have cleaned the oyster nursery yesterday and left it sitting out overnight, but you were so lazy and sleepy (and it was raining so hard) that instead you spent your time loafing in couch-spud heaven watching football.
Fortunately for those of us who suffer from oyster guilt, oysters-even infant oysters-are pretty low maintenance. The main thing is to keep the float clean and free of sediment, remove stuff like algae, barnacles and mussels and keep an eye out for predators like flat worms and even racoons and muskrats, who enjoy fresh young oysters on the half-shell as much as anybody. We checked our float about once a week during the early fall, then every other week as the water grew cooler. Over the winter, the floats can go as long as a month without maintenance, though we had to be sure that on extremely low tides the oysters weren’t exposed to the freezing wind. It’s best not to grow oysters in the height of summer, simply because the floats will foul so quickly.
Once the oysters were well established and growing, we sprayed them with a hose to clean them of silt and dirt, though you can also do this just by jostling the float up and down. We also had to scrub the wire mesh of the float pretty thoroughly with a hard-bristled brush to keep it clean. Johnny’s aunt and uncle, who were gardening on a neighboring dock, used a pulley system to raise and lower their float. We used brute strength and leverage.
The only other job was to measure the oysters-once in early December and again in April. Pulling out 20 of the base shells, we counted all the live and dead oysters we could find on each shell. Then we measured 55 of them, recorded our results and sent them to the foundation. By early June, it was time to put the youngsters into bushel baskets, load them onto Lady D and head for their new home near Tolley Point.
We fly across the Severn River, the workboat’s Caterpillar thrumming. Stacked near the engine box are 13 bushel baskets, in which the Girl Scout gardeners of troops 843 and 2176 have laboriously counted as many oysters as they can.
“They needed an environmental project and this was something that was so hands-on. It wasn’t just a one-day thing,” says Janet Williams, whose daughter is a member of Troop 843 and whose dock off Round Bay was used to tie the troop’s float. “It was a lot of fun. It empowers them to realize they can really do something to help the Bay at their age.”
The Girl Scouts used the gardening project as a way to conduct a variety of other tests and experiments, monitoring water quality and measuring their oysters frequently, recording everything in a perfectly kept, bound notebook. I glance at my water-dripped note pad covered with scrawl and instantly feel inadequate as a mom.
As we approach the oyster bar, Agee backs down on Lady D’s throttle, and Harris starts probing the bottom with a long metal pole. The oyster reef that once thrived here was all but gone until the alliance basically gave it a new foundation, creating a series of mounds of shell four to six feet tall in about 15 feet of water. Two of the mounds they shelled with spat straight from the hatchery; another mound will become home to our oysters. Commercial oystering is not allowed here. Harris pokes the bottom some more.
“Will, can you find that other spot that’s a little lumpier? This is a little too creamy here, too sandy,” Harris says. “Oh there you go, that’s nice. Nice shelly bottom.”
The moment of truth. Two by two, the Girl Scouts lift up each bushel basket and start dumping the oysters over the side. I take quiet satisfaction thinking that the toadfish, who went overboard first, needs a hardhat right about now.
“Bye,” some of the girls call.
“Oh yeah, there you go,” cheers crewman Brion Townsend. “Send ‘em home! Send ‘em home.”
We don’t know what will happen to them. Maybe the toadfish will have them for dinner, maybe Dermo will attack them in a year. Or maybe, just maybe, they’ll grow and grow. Maybe, when my son is 15 or 20 years old, he’ll bring his boat over here, cast in a line and hook a feisty striper, because the oyster reef we helped build has thrived and flourished and become one of the best fishing bars around. Maybe, it’s all part of the circle.