Marylanders Grow Oysters Helps Connect People to Bay
04/18/2011
Edgewater-Davidsonville Patch

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The Marylanders Grow Oysters program allows volunteers to take an active role in restoring populations of oysters in the bay by actually growing the bivalves. The oysters have been growing from docks and piers throughout the state in the past few years and are tended to by a small army of volunteer oyster growers who are becoming increasingly aware of issues that face our waters.

From fall to early spring, dozens of neighborhood piers in the South River watershed have small cages that grow oysters. These cages serve as a cozy hideaway for the oysters and are part of a statewide program helping to increase their numbers in the bay. Life in the bay can be tough for newly-hatched oysters, or ‘spat,' and the cages provide protection during their first year, giving them a better chance at survival.

The Program

The MGO program was launched in 2008 as part of Gov. Martin O'Malley's Maryland's "Smart, Green, and Growing" initiative and is funded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages the program in conjunction with the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP), the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. DNR and its affiliate agencies have been monitoring oyster populations in the Bay since 1939. This is one of the longest running oyster monitoring programs in the world. They monitor reproduction levels, presence of disease and annual mortality rates for our native oyster Crassostrea Virginica.

The MGO program was initially launched on the Tred Avalon river in Talbot County with about 900 cages. The following year the program expanded, adding ten more tributaries and over 6,000 cages. Today, the program operates in 18 tributaries with 8,000 cages and 1,500 growers statewide. In 2010, the program yielded 1.9 million oysters that were placed on sanctuary reefs throughout the Bay and its tributaries. With three to four more tributaries expected to join the program this fall, that means there will be even more oysters collected next year.

The program takes a holistic approach to its goals and seeks support from a number of different agencies and volunteers. The spat are produced at the UMD Center for Environmental Science with shells provided by shucking houses in the state. The shells are cleaned and stockpiled by DNR at Horn Point Hatchery in Dorchester County and Piney Point Hatchery in Saint Mary's County.

The oyster cages are built by inmates at Maryland Correctional Enterprises in Hagerstown and the Eastern Pre-Release Unit in Church Hill. Other inmates also assist with oyster spat production at the Piney Point hatchery.

The ORP helps deliver the supplies to pre-determined distribution points in mid-September. Heavily involved in other oyster restoration efforts, the ORP cleaned and transported over 60,000 bushels of oyster shells in 2010, which resulted in 450 million additional oysters planted in the Bay.

For each tributary, there is a local coordinator who organizes volunteer growers and helps distribute cages and oysters. DNR works to support local sponsors with education and advice for growing oysters successfully.

The Growers

The program came to Anne Arundel County in 2009 at Cape Saint Claire. Since then, the South River Federation has been helping coordinate volunteer support for the MGO in the South River watershed. SRF board member Kevin Green said the organization initially agreed to help put 1,000 oyster cages on the river.

Green said that each year in mid-September the spat arrives and are grown on a clean adult oyster shell at about five to ten spat per shell. Spat needs a solid substrate to cling to during their first year of life before they can develop shells of their own. An adult oyster shell is ideal and these shells mimic what they would find on an oyster bar. Each cage holds about 30 shells and after a year each will yield on average about 30 to 50 oysters.

The wire mesh cages that contain the oysters are typically anchored to a piling so they hang below the water's surface but just above the bottom. It is fairly simple to take care of the oysters, but they do need some attention, Green said. It is necessary to dunk them a couple times a month so that sand and silt do not build up. The cages will also be powerwashed just before they are collected. None of which bother the oysters Green said.

The spat face numerous threats in open waters, from predators to issues of water quality. Green said that spat in the Bay and its tributaries are particularly vulnerable to being smothered by large amounts of sediment that can wash in from the surrounding watershed. Flatworm and diseases like MSX and Dermo also threaten the spat whether they are in cages or not. However, by providing a safe haven for them during the first year of life the program gives our native oyster populations a boost.

Oysters are not the only Bay residents to find sanctuary in the cages. As Green pulled one of the oyster cages onto a dock during a recent interview, a number of other creatures were seen squirming about with the developing spat. Green explained the cages provide an excellent habitat for juvenile crabs, minnows and grass shrimp as well as oyster spat. “They [cages] help create new life for the Bay by being sanctuaries for tons of other critters,” he said.

Nine months after the spat are placed in the cages they are ready to be collected, usually in late May to early June. Green explained that SRF will partner with a local waterman to spread the young oysters on nearby oyster sanctuaries.

There are benefits to having more oysters—and not just because they are delicious. Oysters also have the remarkable ability to filter water. Each oyster can filter nearly 50 gallons of water per day. Although, Green was reluctant to say they would have a major impact on the massive amount of water contained in the Bay. He said the oysters help improve water quality to some extent.

“We are certainly trying to clean up, but the oysters are cleaning up the water too,” he said.

He also said that the MGO program itself is not a solution to restoring oyster populations and water quality to healthy levels, but it helps.

“It's [MGO] really good. Some people might argue that until we actually clean up the sediment that is coming into our rivers and estuaries it's a losing situation but I don't think so. There's too many oysters here it has got to be doing something and more importantly it helps people make a connection to something they can't see.”

The Big Picture

Chris Judy is the Shellfish Program Manager for DNR and he provided some insight into how the program works as well. He coordinates the efforts of all the volunteers and organizations involved with the program and said the holistic approach to the program allows it to be quite cost-effective. He said after factoring in all costs including materials, labor and transportation fees, the total cost for each cage is about $30. Judy said each cage will typically last about ten seasons.

Judy explained that in 2008, 500,000 oyster spat were planted in MD waters and to date the program has been able to plant nearly two million oysters on sanctuary reefs throughout the state. Although the program helps increase the number of oysters in the bay, Judy said that's not what the coordinators see as the most important aspect of the program. He said his coordinators are reporting back to him that they see volunteers are really getting involved in bigger issues facing the bay.

“What they [local coordinators] really see as valuable is how their job relates to people,” he said. “What they see as so valuable is that it energizes, mobilizes and gets people involved.”

There are other benefits too, said Judy. People are keeping a closer eye on their local oyster sanctuaries.

“We have extra eyes watching out over the sanctuaries because people have actually done something to add to them,” he said.

Judy was also hesitant to say that the oysters grown through the program will have a major impact on water quality and he said it is important to remember that responsibility still belongs to us.

“Yes oysters filter and yes they can help, but to improve the water quality but so much more needs to be done,” he said. “We can't lay upon the lowly oyster a job that is actually up to us.”

Perhaps most importantly, Judy said, the program helps to get people thinking about some of the larger issues facing the Bay. “MGO is about people being involved, motivated, connected and educated,” he said.

On the South River, the program has expanded from the initial 1000 cages in 2009. The SRF reports that in 2010 they added 31 new growers and 176 new cages operating on a total of six community piers with 73 individual volunteer growers.

Applications to become a grower or tributary coordinator are taken April to May and if interested, the application to sign up for the program can be found here .

The oysters are delivered in September, and they are left to grow on piers for approximately nine months. They are collected in May or early June. This time period avoids the heavy fouling that can occur if the cages remain in the water through the summer. Here's a map of the current growing sites .

There are plenty of other aspects of the program that could use volunteers besides oyster growing. The program could always use help delivering spat, distributing materials or helping current growers. For more information on the program visit the MGO program or contact Chris Judy to find out how you can help.

Note: The oysters grown through the program are not for human consumption for a few reasons: They're grown too close to shore to avoid bacterial contamination and they're too small after only nine months to eat.