Calvert County may help advance a project designed to improve the quality of the Chesapeake Bay through the development of floating reefs for oysters.

The floating reefs are ideal for nurturing oysters because the shellfish are kept closer to the water's surface, where they mature faster than those that grow in the mud on the bottom. Because they are ready for harvest in nine months to a year, they are much less susceptible to parasites and disease than bottom oysters that take three to five years to mature.

Project organizers outlined their efforts last week to the Calvert Board of Commissioners.

"In Maryland, we're pioneers in this," said Richard Pelz, president of the Circle C Oyster Ranch in Ridge.

The so-called Clean Bay Project, which involves native Chesapeake oysters, would involve putting floating reefs around docks and other locations to study the effect the oysters have on water quality. Pelz wants the county to help those advancing the project gain access to grants.

Oysters, which strain algae and other impurities from the water for their food, are "ideal cleaning machines," said Don Statter, a Calvert resident who is involved in the project.

"I am proposing a pilot study," he said.

Statter told the commissioners that "the Chesapeake Bay was the greatest producer of oysters in the world" once. The decline of the oysters caused by "an overabundance of algae" has resulted in a worsening of water quality, Statter said.

"The Chesapeake will not recover until the oysters return," he said.

Proponents of the project told the commissioners that the use of floating oyster reefs ultimately would be more cost-effective than upgrading sewer plants.

Commissioners President David F. Hale (R-Owings) said he did not object to having a grant writer work with the proponents.

County Attorney Emanuel Demedis asked to review any arrangement between the county and the project before it was approved by the commissioners. He said the legalities of the county helping a for-profit organization need to be considered.

Commissioner Linda L. Kelley (R-At Large) also suggested that the Solomons-based Chesapeake Biological Laboratory be consulted as a resource for the study.

The laboratory, part of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science, has been involved in a landmark project to restore 63 acres of what is described as "severely degraded aquatic habitat" at the mouth of the Patuxent River. That effort, which includes the restoration of oyster reefs, is aimed at improving the water quality and the area's fish and bird habitat.

A separate project, spearheaded by federal and state agencies, to restore natural habitat along the Patuxent that was damaged by the April 2000 oil spill at the former Pepco power plant at Chalk Point in Aquasco will involve the creation of nearly five acres of oyster reef sanctuary in the river.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also has sponsored a program in which people can raise oysters that are later transplanted to sanctuary reefs in the bay.

Oyster floats, which supporters say help improve bay quality, can be found on Richard Pelz's oyster ranch in Ridge.