Thursday, July 19, 2012

How do People Make Oysters?

Well before we answer that question, let’s talk about how people grow oysters.  In 2008 the MD Department of Natural Resources along with Oyster Recovery Partnership and University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratories launched “Marylanders Grow Oysters” (MGO).   In a nut-shell, this is a state funded program that puts oyster restoration into the hands of the thousands of citizens living along the Bay’s shoreline.  It’s local.  It’s community-based, and it's fun!

Our local Chester River-MGO program has been in operation for two seasons now, with great success.  Coordinated by CES and assisted with the help of partner organizations like the Chester River Association, it is 100% dependent upon the sweat equity of thoughtful and energetic community members who want to improve the water quality of the Chester—and learn a little something about oysters as they go.

With 60 members and their family and friends, Chester River-MGO is responsible for 260 cages of baby oysters (spat-on-shell).  Each cage can grow anywhere from 0-300 oysters through our September to June season.   If we get a conservative average of 50 oysters per cage that is still 26,000 oysters a year planted on a local sanctuary in Langford Bay.  Not to mention that we also conspire with MGO programs on the Corsica River and Swan Creek to put oysters back in the Chester. 

This past spring CES organized a survey dive of our sanctuary site.  It was murky, and it was hard to find oysters, but find them we did!  There were at least two distinct “age classes” of oysters: our oysters from 2011 and hatchery oysters from probably around 2009. 

Despite the heavy spring rains from 2011, our oysters were alive and well; we didn’t find any “boxes” or empty oysters that had died.  This came as a great relief to our growers in the Chester as other MGO groups around the Chesapeake had experienced high and unavoidable mortality due to the fresh water coming down from the Susquehanna. (Just in case you are wondering, oysters will grow from around 7ppt salinity to full salt water at 35 ppt.  While many of us like them salty for eating, the high salinity water of our Bay also attracts high disease pressure.  With an average salinity of around 12 ppt towards its mouth, the Chester is a low disease area that lends itself for oyster plantings.)

But let’s back track a little.  “Each cage can grow anywhere from 0-300 oysters….”  That is a huge variation!   Somebody should ask the guy who coordinates this effort what the deal is!  Well, a lot of members did ask me what the deal is, so I punted and said, “we should ask the guy who grows these things what the deal is!”  (Actually, it is a team of people at University of Maryland’s Horn Point Labs and they are dedicated, hard working, and smart.  But are they smarter than mother nature...?)

So instead of watching re-runs of “Freddy vs. Jason” last Friday the 13th,  about fifteen members of Chester River-MGO piled into a Washington College bus and took a field trip to one of the east coast’s largest oyster hatcheries.  (Find out more in Part 2, tomorrow!)

Mike Hardesty is Assistant Director of the Chesapeake Semester at Washington College and the MGO-Chester River Coordinator.

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