Oyster restoration is an important part of the overall strategy to maintain a sustainable wild fishery in the Chesapeake Bay. In particular, oyster sanctuaries have become an essential part of the effort to encourage wild oysters to reproduce and to provide critical reef habitat to many aquatic species that call oyster bars home.
Oyster sanctuaries, although managed by the state, are replenished each year by oysters grown through grassroots efforts. Through initiatives like Marylanders Grow Oysters, ordinary people with docks on waterways throughout the state can help foster ‘nurseries’— cages of oyster spat that they’ll maintain for months until the oysters reach mature size.
When they arrive in their new wire mesh nurseries, these spat are miniscule, almost difficult to discern with the naked eye. Over three seasons, they grow to fingernail length, clustered on their host shell.
In the late spring, another group of volunteers goes out to gather up all these homegrown shellfish. The Chester River Association volunteers took a big pontoon boat out this year, to accommodate the hundreds of oysters they planned on collecting. It was a hot, sunny June day, and the river was still remarkably fresh from heavy spring rains. Despite the bluebird skies, gathering up the oysters in these nurseries is no mean feat. Cages that weighed 20 pounds in the fall might weigh 35 pounds in the spring, bulging with oysters furred with accumulated algae.
Oysters are unceremoniously dumped from nursery to a growing pile on the boat, some muddy, some brown with a winter’s worth of algae. Mud crabs and naked gobies escape back into the water, ousted from their temporary oyster digs.
Other creatures are sometimes found in the cages too, having wandered in when they were smaller and having grown bigger inside the nursery’s confines. One of the cages has a sizeable blue crab that was contentedly sloughing its shell and growing bigger, well-fed on the small organisms that had also populated the mini oyster reef.
Then it’s down to the lower Chester River, where the Chester Riverkeeper, Isabel Hardesty, and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Director of Education, Kate Livie, got to work shoveling spat onto a sanctuary designated by the Department of Natural Resources. Marked by orange buoys but otherwise unremarkable, the river’s unseen bottom is nevertheless the host to a healthy new population of oysters. There they’ll filter as they feed, clarifying the water, hiding legions of mud crabs, and helping to make the Bay that much better, one oyster at a time.
Want to get involved? Lots of Bay organizations can hook you up with your own oyster nursery- for free!
Marylanders Grow Oysters: http://oysters.maryland.gov/
Chesapeake Bay Foundation: http://bit.ly/1BP9Iow
For a more comprehensive list, including Virginia programs: http://bit.ly/1eMR4ta