Playing the Shell Game

Growing oysters is about the future of our children — and about the child in us. Watching the squigglies living among the oysters is fascinating fun for all ages.

Len Zuza, of Southern Maryland Oyster Conservations Society,left, lifts out an oyster cage for the students.

Growing oysters is also about the adult in people of all ages, responsibly working to restore our Bay. So it’s useful to know if our efforts come to anything — beyond the playfulness of getting our hands dirty.

The Future of Gardening

Is cultivating oyster gardens the right way to restore our oyster population? Can problems like pollution, silting and the two oyster-killing diseases — MSX and dermo — be overcome by putting more oysters in the Bay?

It’s looking that way, especially recently, as more oysters have plied their magic in the Bay. 

In 2000 through 2003, planted oysters were dying at the rate of 56 to 60 percent a year.

Yet when dermo and MSX increased in 2009, oyster deaths did not, remaining at 17 percent, according to pathologist Christopher Dungan with the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory of the Department of Natural Resources. The improved findings may, Dungan says “reflect enhanced disease resistance among survivors of the 1999-2002 drought and their progeny.”

That’s especially good news to Len Zuza, chairman of Southern Maryland Oyster Cultivation Society. The Society helps Solomons-area waterfront owners on Battle, Mill, Back, and St. Johns creeks grow baby oyster spat into yearling oysters in cages under their piers. Then the oysters are settled in protected sanctuaries in the same creeks.

Were oysters still continuing to die at a rate three times higher, “we would still not have given up,” Zuza says. “But we’d have had to be a lot more patient in reaching the levels we want, three and a half million living oysters to filter Solomons’ three creeks.”

Like Dungan, Zuza sees survival of the fittest in the oysters’ vitality.

“In a sense, the lower mortality rate is the result of breeding; not by human intervention, but rather Mother Nature,” Zuza says. “The oysters that survived the heavy annual die-offs may have produced offspring with the genes to cope with the oyster diseases and the environmental extremes to which Bay oysters are subjected.”

More oysters are living, even though we haven’t solved the problem of pollution. And they are living at a rate much closer to the rate before MSX and dermo were on the scene.

“This finding has given us much greater confidence that the oysters that we are planting are likely to survive longer and continue removing pollution from local waters,” Zuza says.

Setting up the Garden

photo by Amy Dziengeleski

Andy Dziengeleski and daughter Brooke pull up an oyster cage on the West River.

So oyster gardening is work with a future. But what does it take in the here and now?

An oyster garden begins with spat on shell. That seed is a valuable commodity. One million seed oysters set on shell costs about $10,000. Seed has been scarce as well as expensive. Last month the Shellfish Culture Facility at Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, already the largest oyster hatchery on the East Coast, doubled its capacity. So seed will be more available.

Knowledgeable gardeners can find local sources for seed. John Kelly Jr. is captain for Coastal Conservation Association, another organization active in planting along St. Leonard Creek. The Kelly family got their seed on shell from a local source, the legendary Jonny Oyster Seed on Battle Creek 

Next, seed oysters are transferred to cages hung from piers. The cages have to be shaken every week and occasionally cleaned. They must be submerged deep enough to avoid winter freezing and off the bottom so they aren’t covered in silt. At that level, oxygen and food are plentiful, and the young oysters grow at rates faster than when they are living on the bottom. The cages also protect the small vulnerable oysters from predators.

“It took a lot of physical labor,” Kelly says. “The cages are hanging off a rope, and you pull them up and down to get the silt off.” 

Southern Maryland Oyster Cultivation Society makes the work easier, though more expensive, deploying weighted cages that revolve with the tide.

As soon as your cage goes in the water, you’ve restored native oysters — and all their benefits — to our watershed’s rivers and creeks. 

That’s where the reward comes in.

“It’s worth the effort to restore the oyster reefs,” Kelly says. “I can see around my dock the clearance where the oysters grow. People can see the walleye, crabs, eels and mud crabs growing.”

A year hence, when it’s time for young oysters in their shells to be released on shell beds, comes the bigger job of making a reef. On St. Leonard Creek, from a 30-by-10-yard bed of shells the Southern Maryland Oyster Cultivation Society has already planted 100,000 yearling oysters.

A reef holds the shells and future oysters above the silt and creates a current to bring food to the colony. A whole ecosystem of creatures comes, too.

The Fun Starts

photo by Hugh Davies

Fourteen-year-old Calvin Davies began growing oysters when he became creek captain for nearby Mill Creek.

Now that a greater number of oysters are surviving, creeks with oyster cages and oyster beds should be displaying the wonders that accompany this Atlas of the Bay: Along with oysters grow more little fish, crabs and shrimp. These attract bigger fish, then cranes and herons. As the oysters clean the water, the sunlight reaches to the sea grasses, and ducks now come to dive for their dinner.

“They attract so much other marine life that I use it as an excuse to teach Brooke what the different critters are,” says oyster gardener Andy Dziengeleski, who with his three-year-old helps maintain a friend’s oyster cages on the West River. “We’ve seen blue crabs, grass shrimp, mantis shrimp — that was a real surprise! — sea nettles, bay anchovies, mummichog, spot and pipefish.”

Whether for fun or a desire to make a difference, older youths are farming oysters, too. Ron Forster, 15, became involved with oysters when his friend, Calvin Davies, 14, became creek captain for nearby Mill Creek. Davies managed the oyster project for his Eagle Scout project with Troop 427.

“Back last fall, Calvin told us what he wanted to do, and we got 20 oyster cages,” Ron says. “It wasn’t hard putting them in or taking them out. We hung them down under the dock, and the oysters basically did all the work themselves.”

“We had a fun time,” reports Ron, whose dad, Dan, worked with him over a year of tending oysters. They managed the cages — think of milk crates — suspended under the Harbor Point Community Dock in Solomons. “The little kids would come down, and we’d pull up some cages, then watch their eyes light up to see the little ecosystem and how it works.”

The Oyster Bandwagon

The Patuxent Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, which delivered the spat-on-shell oysters to the Davies, began its aquaculture venture in 2008.

“We’ve gone a great distance since then,” explains Scott McGuire, oyster committee chair. “We partnered with the Marylanders Grow Oysters Program and received a grant from Dominion Resources to deploy 1,000 cages in 2009.” This summer, Coastal Conservation Association retrieved more than 350,000 young adult oysters and delivered them by barge to sanctuaries.

The Marylanders Grow Oysters Program at DNR works with many projects to grow oysters for sanctuaries. In 2009, Marylanders Grow Oysters placed 6,123 oyster cages on a dozen Maryland tributaries, including the Magothy, Severn, and South rivers in Anne Arundel and lower Patuxent in Calvert County. New in 2010 are Anne Arundel’s Bodkin and Cox creeks.

Marylanders Grow Oysters has about 1.5 million in cages now. A total of about 8,000 cages, with up to 800 oysters each, will be planted in 19 tributaries by year’s end.

To be part of the big picture, a tributary needs a sponsoring organization and enough piers to support 30 cages. The sponsor picks up the cages with spat-on-shell and delivers them to the creek captain and waterfront owners.

Just last week, Eagle Cove School in Pasadena (the former Gibson Island Day School) joined the action. “We are a Maryland Green School, and all students receive hands-on environmental learning,” reports head of school Laura Kang. “The kids are really looking forward to helping move spat bags to the water and learning about the oyster recovery efforts here in our own Magothy River.”

photo by Hugh Davies

Chris Davies, Adam Krury and Mitch Lake bring cages full of young-adult oysters from piers to the barge to be planted.

Cleaning Up the Bay

Cultivating oyster gardens gives you a hands-on — and playful — way to make a healthier Bay.

“We saw the water get clean and all the wildlife in the Bay in our cages,” says Ron Forster, echoing a common story. “It’s not just our family, but other families in the neighborhood. The little kids giggled when the minnows and suckerfish would come out. The whole community got a kick out of it.”

Adds dad Dan Forster: “We got a chance to talk to neighbors about how everyone needs to do our little part to bring the Bay back up.”