Putting Oysters Back in the Bay

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008

Conservation-minded fishermen have teamed with oyster ranchers in St. Mary's County for a project they say will help clean the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Patuxent River Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, St. Thomas Creek Oysters and Circle C Oyster Ranchers Association signed an agreement Tuesday to work together to raise 25,000 oysters on St. Thomas Creek. The group also plans to encourage homeowners to join the project.

"We are not exactly pioneers. We are following a long line of sportsmen who have done something similar," said Robert Glenn, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland. "We appreciate the resources and are working to protect them."

The approximate $11,500 cost of the project is being funded by private donations.

On Tuesday morning at St. Thomas Creek, conservation association volunteers dumped buckets of oysters donated by a Calvert County nursery into thick plastic mesh bags that were attached to PVC piping provided by the Circle C Oyster Ranchers. Volunteers stuffed straw into the mesh bags to feed the amphipods, which control other micro-organisms that compete with the growing oysters for food and block water flow.

Five bags holding an estimated 1,000 oysters in all were secured to piping and placed in water near the shore of St. Thomas Creek, where they will float for two years, each oyster filtering 50 to 55 gallons of the creek's water per day.

"We really haven't given our natural oyster population a fair shake," said Scott McGuire, president of the Patuxent River Chapter of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland. McGuire said widespread introduction of non-native oysters to the bay and its tributaries would be "criminal." After the Calvert County oysters grow to full size in two years, they will be placed in a sanctuary at the mouth of the Patuxent River.

"We got the oysters donated. We got the trays donated. All we needed was free labor to do the work," said Tom Gilmour of Lusby, a member of the association's Patuxent and Southern Maryland chapters. "We have a good chance to make a difference."

Richard Pelz, founder, president and chief executive of Circle C Oyster Ranchers Association, a commercial oyster growing and harvesting business, designed the floating oyster reefs. The oysters grow faster while living nearer the water's surface.

"It takes three years to [grow full-size oysters] on the bottom. We are effectively cutting that in half," said Bob Parkinson, owner of St. Thomas Creek Oysters, whose permits allow for the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland's floating oyster reef on his property. The oysters Parkinson raises for commercial use are transferred to St. Jerome Creek as part of Circle C's operations before being sold.

Pelz said the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland oyster project helps him reach the goal of 100 floats promised for a Virginia Tech research project aimed at measuring how much nitrogen and phosphorus the shellfish remove from water. He said the floating reefs have improved the water quality, bacteria levels and aquatic life wherever they are used. He raises his commercial oysters in St. Jerome Creek, which he described as once being "black muck two-feet deep."

"Now we leave footprints in the sand," Pelz said. "I think that is pretty huge."

St. Jerome Creek also was recently dredged, and the county added a sewer line to help clean up parts of the creek. "The oysters did most of the work," Pelz said.

Looking for similar results, McGuire said his group plans to approach homeowners associations on Hellen Creek in Calvert County next month to sell them on the oyster project. Part of his pitch, he said, will be to promote a Maryland tax provision, approved in 2002, that grants a credit of $500 per person or $1,000 per household for participating in an aquaculture oyster float program.

Such a credit would essentially cover the cost that homeowners would incur to participate. Circle C Oyster Ranchers Association sells three floats with oysters for $500.

Waterfront homeowners can attach the floats to their docks and harvest them for themselves or pass them to McGuire's group to add to the sanctuary, he said.

"Certainly the goal is to get as many of these at the docks as possible," he said. "It gives people a reason to care," which translates from the water into their actions on land.

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