This year, gardening includes oysters

By John Martin Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 2:11 PM

Children scramble over the deck of the E.C. Collier, a century-old restored skipjack and popular hands-on showcase of the sprawling, 18-acre Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md., on the Eastern Shore. "Look at the size of this one," their father yells at the boys as he studies the replica of a mammoth oyster on display nearby. "It says here they were so big that one oyster would cover a dinner plate! You ate 'em like a steak!"

The oyster is indeed a monster, modeled from 18th-century descriptions. Back then, the Chesapeake was once so filled with oyster bars (underwater mounds of oyster colonies) that navigation was difficult. Today it's a different story: The oyster population is a mere 2 percent of historic-high levels.

The bay's recreational oyster season officially opened last week, but more than 2,000 volunteers have already signed on to work with the bivalves: not harvesting them, but "gardening" them on private property. It's the most visible of the aggressive programs Maryland and Virginia have begun, with the help of new federal funding and a number of environmental organizations, in hopes of increasing the number of oysters in the bay tenfold in the next decade.

By the end of the month, more than 8,000 cages filled with young oysters will be hanging from private docks in Maryland tributaries, while in Virginia volunteers are growing out oysters in creekside floating racks and trays. According to Chris Judy, who heads Maryland's program, 1.5 million oysters collected from the cages this summer, after growing for a year in the estuaries, were planted in sanctuaries, where they will spawn.

Although none of the school kids, college students, homemakers, retirees and working stiffs who raise the oysters get to eat them (dockside waters generally are deemed unsafe), the programs have become popular with those participants, who are proud to be helping to clean up and repopulate the bay. By the time each immature oyster, or "spat," has reached market size at three years old, it can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day.

Begun in one river in Talbot County in 2008, the Marylanders Grow Oysters program has expanded to 19 rivers.

Turkle North, a retired 50-year veteran of oystering who works at the maritime museum on the weekends, thinks the state could be doing more. In the 1960s and '70s, he said, the state helped maintain the oyster population by digging up shells and planting them on banks where the spat could settle. He acknowledges that the bay is overfished but says the state needs to protect the oystermen's livelihoods.

"They're taking the good productive bottoms and closing whole rivers to oystering," North says. "The Big Choptank only has a small area you can work. The Little Tred Avon and Harris Creek will be closed. I don't know how folks are going to make it."

In fact, the bay has been overfished for well over 100 years. In the 18th century, oysters were gathered with hand-operated tongs, still used today by a handful of rugged commercial and recreational oystermen (including North before he retired). When power dredges were invented in the late 18th century, they were brought down to the Chesapeake from New England, where they had quickly depleted the oyster populations. Virginia outlawed power dredging in 1811 and Maryland followed in 1820. But by the middle of the century, even with dredging allowed only from moving sailboats such as the Collier, and tonging allowed only from stationary workboats, dozens of packing and canning facilities had sprung up around the bay, and "oyster trains" with 30 to 40 packed cars left Baltimore every day.

By 1854, the B&O Railroad had reached Springfield, Ill., where a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln was developing a passion for the bivalves. At Ulysses S. Grant's second inaugural ball in Washington, 10,000 fried oysters were served. By 1884, 15 million bushels of oysters were harvested annually in the bay. But by 1910, the harvest was down to 3.5 million. Today, oyster populations in the bay are so reduced that the season is no longer open throughout the "r" months.

When oysters are available, watermen and other oyster lovers in these parts prefer to cook them without much fuss.

When I meet John Sheriff at the maritime museum, he is lumbering down a ladder that is leaning against the Thomas Clyde, one of 19 remaining skipjacks built before 1912. He lives in Nanjemoy, on the Potomac south of Washington, but mates for Laurence Murphy, the skipjack's captain, during the season. It's lunchtime and I'm hungry, so we begin sharing oyster recipes. I can tell he's a cook as he goes through the motions with his hands as he speaks.

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