Volunteers with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) on Saturday started growing one crop that does as well in winter as in summer: baby oysters. At CBF’s new Eastern Shore office in Easton the volunteers assembled cages that will become home to the small bivalves over the coming months. Each volunteer left with four cages and several thousand seed oysters to grow at home. In all about 250 families in Maryland will participate in the organization’s “Oyster Gardening” program this year, the original program of its kind in the state.
“This is a great way for people to help Save the Bay, and to learn the importance of one of its keystone species. A single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Anyone can help restore the oyster population, as long as he or she has access to tidal water,” said Alan Girard, director of CBF’s Eastern Shore office.
The cages—made from wire mesh—can be hung from any structures near the water, such as private or marina docks, community pier, etc. The tiny baby oysters, called “spat,” cling to old oyster shells which are placed inside the cages. Caring for the spat requires minimal labor. In late spring when the oysters have grown to about the size of a silver dollar, they will be returned to CBF, and the organization will add those oysters to sanctuary reefs in the Choptank and Miles rivers. Gardeners can then pick up a fresh batch of spat and start again.
“It’s surprising how attached to the oysters they grow. Some are visibly upset when they have to let them go live in the wild,” Girard said.
Oysters are the Chesapeake Bay’s best natural filters. They also provide essential habitat for fish and other Bay creatures. Unfortunately, though, today’s oyster population is estimated at only a few percent of its original level.
CBF’s Oyster Restoration Center in Shady Side, MD is expected to produce 20 million spat this year. Some of those are distributed to the oyster gardeners to grow. CBF grows others in nursery creeks. When sufficiently grown, all the oysters are deployed on sanctuary reefs around Maryland that are off limits to harvesting.