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Published: Monday August 18, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday August 19, 2014 MYT 1:27:56 PM

Farming a reef

Oyster gardeners help save the bay.

OYSTERS are harvested for your dining pleasure. They are also grown and harvested for bigger role – helping protect the water quality of Chesapeake Bay in the United States.

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 programme 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 programme.

“Many citizens find ways to tend a garden by getting permission from a marina, using a neighbour 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 honour 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 227 litres of water a day, according to Bonnie Kersta, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation volunteer.

“Imagine what happens when you multiply that by thousands of oysters in our bay,” Kersta 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, Virginia, 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 one side of the bag, grabs a brush and scrubs the silt and oyster poop that collect in the bag, brushing carefully so that 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.

Growing oysters: Michelle Scott checks baby oysters growing in a flip float. She supports the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's oyster gardening programme in Virginia, the United States, to help establish reefs along local waterways. - MCT photos
Growing oysters: Michelle Scott checks growing in a flip float. She supports the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's oyster gardening programme in Virginia, the United States, to help establish reefs along local waterway. – MCT photos

“Even though oyster gardening can be a little dirty, I enjoy the work and I feel accomplished with getting it done,” he says.

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 realise 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,” Rich says. “We attended courses and consulted local watermen. Our goal: help clean the Chesapeake Bay.”

In Newport News, Michelle Scott uses a neighbour’s pier to do her oyster gardening.

Volunteer oyster gardeners release their farmed oysters on a protected reef in the York River.
Volunteer oyster gardeners release their famed oysters on a protected reef in the York River.

“Here was something I could do in my own backyard to help the bay,” Scott 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 two inches (5cm) and counting. After nine months, these oysters are cleaning up to 220 litres of James River water per day when water temps are above 50°F (10°C). What an amazing creature.” – Daily Press/McClatchy Tribune Information Services

Tags / Keywords: Environment, oyster


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