Friday, September 17, 2010

The Oysters are Coming, The Oysters are Coming!!!

"The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster."
-- David Hume, 18th Century Scottish

I don't know if Mr. Hume thought less of man or more of oysters, but from the Chesapeake Bay's perspective, oysters are unquestionably of greater importance.  While man is the great polluter of the Bay, oysters are the great purifiers - nature's filtration system that we have done our best to decimate in modern times through over-harvesting and poor stewardship of our resources.  When Captain John Smith arrived in the Chesapeake Bay at the beginning of the 17th century, he commented that oysters "lay as thick as stones".  Back then, oysters filtered all the water in the Bay in just three days to a week.  Now the oyster population is struggling for survival, and it takes the remaining oysters over a year to filter the same amount of water.

It's not clear that the powers that be have the political will or resources to make the tough decisions that are needed to make the Bay healthy again, but as individuals, there are small things that we can do to help.  The state of Maryland has taken the initiative to back a grassroots oyster restoration campaign called Marylanders Grow Oysters, and it's time once again for all us Chesapeake Bay Oyster Farmers to pick up our new crop of baby oysters.  This is part of an effort to restore the oyster population in the Bay, and as a result, improve the quality of the Bay's waters.  NPR did a great story on oyster farming just last month that can be found at:

My family participates in the Marylanders Grow Oysters (MGO) program through our local Magothy River Association oyster gardening coordinator.  Oyster shells that are seeded with "spat" or baby (larval to be technical) oysters are placed in small 18x12x12 inch cages and hung off of docks to grow for a year until they're old enough to be released on a reef in the Bay or a river.

Last year around this time, my daughter and I picked up four cages of seeded oyster shells over by the Little Magothy beach/park in Cape St. Claire.  We were frankly looking for a volunteer opportunity to put on her National Junior Honor Society application and thought this might be a nice thing to try.  While our initial motivation was not purely altruistic, we have since become big fans of the project and are delighted to continue our participation.

Oysters loaded for the ride home.

Dad lends a hand.

Henry lends a hand.

Ready to hang off the dock.

Over the year, we occasionally pulled the cages up to give them a rinse - knock off some of the goo growing on the cages and scare off some of the critters that seemed to think the cages made a mighty nice home.  We made sure they were deep enough in the water to avoid a winter freeze but not right on the bottom.  In the spring, we received an e-mail with GPS coordinates for the reef in the Magothy where we were to release the oysters.  It was marked with a big orange MGO buoy.  It was really a fairly minimal effort to participate in something that is hopefully beneficial to the Bay.  Check out the video below of our oyster release back in May.  

People can argue until they're blue in the face about the causes of and solutions to Bay pollution, but at a point, you feel like you have to do something, and maybe even this small contribution can make a difference.  After watching the terrible events in the Gulf of Mexico this past summer, I feel all the more protective of our unique resource here in the Mid-Atlantic.  If nothing else, participating in this program has raised the awareness of my kids about the poor condition of the Bay and trying to play a part in its recovery.

To learn more about the history of the Chesapeake Bay oyster population and current efforts to restore it, you can find lots of great information at:

If you have a dock or access to one and would like to be an oyster farmer/gardener, check out the Marylanders Grow Oysters website:

Or you can visit the Magothy River Association site which explains the details of our particular program:

There are a couple of different avenues for participation.  I know one program sponsors a clinic where you actually make your own cages.  In our case, the cages were provided last year along with the oysters.  After releasing our oysters, we brought the cages back to our dock and rinsed them off to use again.  We will pick up bags of seeded oyster shells over at the Little Magothy this afternoon and put them in the cages when we get home.

Even if you aren't a fan of oysters as a food as I am, you have to appreciate their value to the ecosystem, and you also have to envy their lifestyle.  As Hector Bolitho, a prolific 20th century author, novelist and biographer, once said,

"Oysters are the most tender and delicate of all seafoods; They stay in bed all day and night; They never work or take exercise, are stupendous drinkers, and wait for their meals to come to them."

Oysters don't have it quite so easy these days, but I know four cages worth that will be partying down at my dock for the next year...

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