Oysters every which way--raw, fried, scalded or stewed--will be the main attraction at the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival this weekend, but organizers hope aficionados will consider conservation, too, as they consume more than 500 bushels during the two-day event.

"The few oyster shells on your plate that you are about to discard represent an important commodity in the Chesapeake Seafood Industry," a sign says, part of an education and outreach program by the Maryland Department of the Environment to increase awareness of oyster reef restoration in the Chesapeake Bay.

Volunteers from high schools will collect and bag the shells at the festival. The shells will be left outside to age and weather naturally. Then they'll get a rinse before being placed in hatching tanks, where they will become nests for free-swimming oyster larvae.

"The festival celebrates oysters and the bay and the restoration of the reef that's going on in the bay. So it really goes hand in hand with what we're trying to do," said David Taylor, administrator of the festival.

Educational and historical exhibits have been featured at past festivals, but the efforts to encourage oyster shell recycling are new this year, Taylor said.

The mountain of oysters eaten at the festival will generate about 1,000 bags of shells, which will be used to help produce 2 million juvenile oysters, or "spats," said Stanley Tomaszewski, coordinator of the education program.

Last year, about 17,000 people attended the two-day event. The festival, now in its 33rd year, will be held Saturday and Sunday at the St. Mary's County Fairgrounds on Route 5, south of Leonardtown. The event is sponsored by the Rotary Club of Lexington Park, and proceeds benefit the group's charitable work.

The festival will host the National Oyster Shucking Championship and the National Oyster Cook-Off. The winner of the shucking contest becomes the U.S. champion and competes next fall in Galway, Ireland, in the International Oyster Shucking Contest.

The cook-off is set for Saturday morning, with judging completed in the afternoon. A dozen cooking finalists from around the country will compete for the grand prize.

Winners from festivals in Florida and on the West Coast will arrive in St. Mary's later this week and will be hosted by festival organizers at a reception Friday evening at the Day's Inn in Lexington Park.

The gathering will give them a chance "to size each other up," Taylor said.