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By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 7, 2008

Carolyn Steiner stretched over the edge of a neighbor's pier on Hellen Creek as she tried to wrangle a float that held 600 juvenile oysters.

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On the water, James McVey guided his canoe through several pilings to push a train of floats attached to his boat closer to Steiner.

These neighbors along Hellen Creek off the Patuxent River in Calvert County are becoming oyster ranchers as part of a grass-roots effort to improve the water quality in their creek and, in turn, the Chesapeake Bay. While state and federal oyster restoration efforts have cost nearly $60 million since 1994, one recent EPA estimate found that the number of oysters has declined over that time.

So several groups, including the Hellen Creek community, are launching local oyster ranching projects, using state tax credits to help finance their efforts.

"This is providing the opportunity for us to help the environment," said Steiner, 57, who had three of the 3-by-6-foot floats, which are made of PVC piping and contain 600 oysters each, delivered to her pier.

Steiner and her neighbor Bob Wood are among 25 Lusby homeowners along the creek and Blount's Cove who launched 45 floats, containing a total of 27,000 juvenile oysters, last week. They are part of a three-year project led by the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland's Patuxent River Chapter.

Some of the homeowners will donate their oysters to a reef sanctuary. Others will eat them. Steiner said she plans to donate most of her oysters to the sanctuary after the three-year growth period, but added, "We might have to harvest some for the oyster stew for New Year's, though."

Experts say the oyster population in the bay is at 1 percent of historic high levels recorded in the 1880s.

Oyster numbers have persisted at that low point in recent years, "if not worse," Chris Moe, captain of the Hellen Creek project, said as he prepared more floats to be delivered to piers along the waterway.

The nickel-size oysters are expected to grow to a mature size of about three inches in one year, said Moe, a member of the Coastal Conservation Association. A three-inch oyster is capable of filtering up to 55 gallons of water a day. The Hellen Creek oysters will filter nearly a million gallons of water by this time next year, said Moe, who wants to add 100 more oyster floats to the creek next year.

"We want to take this template and drop it in other creeks around the bay," said Moe, who conducted community meetings and training sessions before the launch. "We help people understand the state is paying for it."

State Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) was the lead sponsor of the 2002 legislation offering homeowners a $500 tax credit to offset the cost of purchasing aquaculture oyster floats.


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