- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2005

Spats — baby oysters the size of a dime — can have a sizable impact on the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a lesson not lost on 9-year-olds Alex Cook and Elee Johns of Yorktown Elementary School in Bowie. The pair have taken it upon themselves to learn about the bay’s fragile health and share what they find with their peers.

One way to improve the bay is with oyster gardening — cultivating young oysters to be deposited later on conservation reefs. Oysters help keep bay water clean by feasting on algae, and their reefs provide shelter for water-based creatures, like barnacles, on which fish feed.

The clever youngsters visited the Pier 7 marina on the South River in Edgewater, Md., Thursday to see firsthand the budding oysters growing in the river’s waters.

The boys, under the guidance of oyster gardener Bruce St. Germain and South River riverkeeper Drew Koslow, hauled up some oyster cages to check on their progress. The boys giggled as they struggled with the weight, not minding a whit about getting a little dirty in the process.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation reports that when the area’s oyster population was at its peak in the late 1800s, the shellfish could filter the whole bay in three to six days. Today, it would take just under a year to accomplish the same feat, thanks to dwindling populations, said to be roughly 1 percent of its peak.

The spats are placed on established oyster shells, where they can attach themselves and start to grow, and then placed in cages. They float in the water for roughly a year, at which time they will have grown to about an inch in diameter. Then, area gardeners move the growing oysters to one of nine conservation reefs established by the foundation. These reefs are created in areas closed to commercial harvesting and safe from oysters’ natural predators, including crabs.

Mr. St. Germain, an oyster gardener volunteer with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the South River Federation, says oyster cages are generally lowered into the water at the end of July.

Mr. St. Germain removes the cages from the water every two weeks to let them bask in roughly two hours of sunlight. The sun helps kill off any bacteria or algae growing on the cage and around the oysters.

Oysters generally have a 50 percent survival rate in their natural habitat, he says. The oysters in the cages, which protect them from predators, enjoy a 25 percent increase in that rate. Oysters can live 15 years or longer, with some growing to the size of a dinner plate.

Mr. Koslow says local oyster gardening efforts have gone on for six years. More recently, he began spreading the word to local children and their parents.

“I can’t protect this river by myself. My job is to educate people so they want to help the river,” Mr. Koslow says.

The foundation planted 1,200 tons of oyster shells in the Severn River in September alone, and hopes to bring the oyster population to 10 percent of its highest levels by 2010.

For young Elee, getting an extra education on the bay meant digging into one of his favorite topics.

“I love studying bodies of water,” he says.

Both Elee and Alex submitted proposals to their school for the chance to work full time on their conservation project, which began in August. The school also interweaves information about the bay and its ecosystem into the science curriculum.

“In 20 years, the bay went from really clean to really dirty,” says Elee, who along with Alex rounds out the school’s morning announcements each day with a fact about the Chesapeake Bay. “We’re trying to teach the kids what’s happening in the bay and how to save it.”

Oyster gardening is a relatively new practice, according to Don Webster, extension specialist at the University of Maryland.

Mr. Webster says university researchers began oyster gardening in the early 1980s to learn more about oysters and their environmental impact. The practice flagged for a spell, then enjoyed a second life in the mid-1990s in part due to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“They realized oysters are a very important part of the environment and they’ve undergone a decimation in Maryland,” Mr. Webster says.

When Mr. Webster joined the university 30 years ago, the waterways here generated up to 3 million bushels of oysters a year. Last year, the region produced only 40,000 bushels.

Generally, disease, overharvesting and mismanagement cause a drop in oyster populations. Locally, disease is chiefly to blame, he says.

The biggest concern is Dermo, a southern disease that drifted north, he says. Dermo is caused by a protozoan parasite and can linger within oysters for years before killing them.

Mr. Webster, who has sent oyster gardening information to colleagues in Maine, New York, Mississippi and Alabama, says the biggest challenge for the average person today who wants to start his or her own oyster garden is keeping the cages clean.

“Shellfish aren’t difficult to raise because nature is feeding them,” he says.

Anyone wishing to start a garden can visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Web site (www.cbf.org) for more information.

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