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Diggin' In: Oyster gardeners help save the bay

August 4, 2014

Oysters are harvested for your dining pleasure.

They are also grown and harvested for bigger role — helping protect the water quality of the East Coast’s Chesapeake Bay

More than 300 volunteers actively grow oysters in Virginia to help the Chesapeake Bay Foundation establish sanctuary reefs along nearby waterways, according to Chuck Epes, spokesman for the foundation.

In Hampton Roads, for example, the foundation’s oyster gardening program began in 1998, and its growers are mostly, but not all, waterfront homeowners or marina slip owners, according to Tanner Council, the foundation’s Hampton Roads grassroots coordinator for the program.

"Many citizens find ways to tend a garden by getting permission from a marina, using a neighbor or friend’s pier or tending gardens on a business’ property," he says. 

"This year we will give gardeners a special ‘burgee,’ or nautical flag, to hang at piers where restorative oyster gardening is occurring. In this way, we hope to highlight and honor those citizens who volunteer to directly improve local water quality and foster the comeback of the legendary bay oyster."

Oysters are important to the bay because one mature oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, according to Bonnie Kersta, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation volunteer in Yorktown, Va.

"Imagine what happens when you multiply that by thousands of oysters in our bay," she says.

"The best thing about oyster gardening is that anyone who has access to a tidal water site can become a gardener. Much like vegetable gardening, it involves checking and cleaning your oysters on a regular basis."

In York County, Va., 18-year-old David Lewis began oyster gardening in 2009. Working on a citizenship-in-the-community merit badge for scouts, he volunteered, along with his father, to sort, carry and dump oysters on reefs.

Then he attended workshops to learn to make floats and maintain oysters at his home.

"Maintenance is easiest when it is high tide," says Lewis.

As the oysters grow, they can become heavy, so high tide naturally helps pull the float out of the water, according to Lewis. Once the float is out, weekly maintenance is simple: He moved the oysters to the one side of the bag, grabs a brush and scrubs the silt and oyster poop that collect in the bag, brushing carefully so he doesn’t damage their shells or cilia, hair-like helpers on the edges of each oyster. He pours water over the bag to wash away any other debris, then moves the oysters to the other side of the bag and repeats the cleaning process.

He added, "Even though oyster gardening can be a little dirty, I enjoy the work and I feel accomplished with getting done."

Oyster gardening has also benefited Lewis personally. His science research helped him win more than 14 awards at county, regional and state science fairs, and he won an international Eco-Hero award from the Action for Nature magazine, which led to a feature article in On Earth magazine.

"I think the biggest benefit is that it helped me realize that I would like a career in marine science research, animal research, or as a veterinarian," says Lewis, who will begin studying biology and aquaculture at Virginia Tech this fall.

Lee Riggins Rich comes from a family that has maintained local oyster beds for many years, so oyster gardening comes naturally to her.

"Following recent decades during which bay pollution and oyster disease decimated our formerly healthy oyster stock, we decided a couple of years ago, with bay conditions somewhat improving, to try to restore the beds," she says.

"We attended courses and consulted local watermen. Our goal: help clean the Chesapeake Bay."

In Newport News, Va., Michelle Scott uses a neighbor’s pier to do her oyster gardening. Married to Dr. Carl Scott, a visiting professor at nearby Christopher Newport University, she always finds a community project when they move to a different university.

"Here was something I could do in my own back yard to help the bay," she says.

"It’s enjoyable to watch a tiny creature, no bigger than my pinky nail, which comes in a mesh bag of 1,000, beat the odds of winter surf, barnacles, blue crabs, storm water runoff, disease, and my own inexperience, grow to 2 inches and counting.

"After nine months, these oysters are cleaning up to 50 gallons of James River water per day when water temps are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. What an amazing creature."

 

 


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