EASTON — In an effort inspired by childhood memories of a bountiful Bay, the Chesapeake Bay “Advance and Protect” Oyster Reef Recovery Initiative hosted its oyster social Thursday, June 12, inviting people to join conservation efforts.
“I had a wonderful childhood growing up on Spencer’s Creek, which is just a small tributary off of the Miles River,” said Scott Eglseder, founder of the Oyster Reef Recovery Initiative. “As a little boy, I remember, during the summer months, you could walk to the end of the dock, look down and actually see the bottom.”
As an offshoot of the state’s Marylanders Grow Oysters program, the Oyster Reef Recovery Initiative works to get people involved firsthand in Maryland’s oyster restoration and Chesapeake Bay clean-up.
The Oyster Reef Recovery Initiative and numerous other organizations act as local coordinators for the MGO program, which started in the Tred Avon River in 2008, but has grown to include 30 Bay tributaries.
Anyone who has a dock in a Bay tributary can get involved as a grower for free.
Specifically for the Oyster Reef Recovery Initiative, oyster spat on shell — the shell being collected from restaurants by the Oyster Recovery Partnership and planted by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Lab in Cambridge — are delivered to a drop-off location around September.
Each local coordinator will organize its growers to the drop-off location, where the spat-on-shell are loaded up into cages, which are built by prisoners at the correctional institution in Hagerstown, and then taken back to growers’ docks.
The cages are hung about a foot or so from the bottom off the docks throughout the fall and winter until about June, when volunteers for an oyster pick-up day collect each growers’ cages and take them to be put on a boat and planted in a state oyster sanctuary.
It takes some maintenance and care to be a grower, said Chris Judy, manager of the MGO program.
“The water flows through the cage, the oysters grow and they eat algae,” Judy said Thursday at the oyster social. “You come along, hopefully every week or two or three ... and you dunk the cage like a tea bag. When you dunk the cage, a lot of silt washes off the shells and it keeps the oysters cleaner.”
The cages can become heavily fouled with growth, Judy said, so he recommends scrubbing the growth off about once a month.
Scott Eglseder started the Oyster Reef Recovery Initiative in 2011. Eglseder said at the oyster social he was motivated to start the initiative after seeing a water quality demonstration with oysters — a natural nutrient filter in water — at a farmers market.
“I’m kind of a number guy, and as I learned more and more about oysters and what they did and how they did it, I was really kind of shocked,” Eglseder said.
Eglseder talked to the crowd at the social about how, in a perfect world, oysters can grow exponentially, and that exponential growth could be a powerful tool in Bay clean-up goals.
But he said there are things like sediment and runoff keeping oysters from experiencing their full exponential growth potential. But the more that go in, the cleaner the Bay can get, he said.
There were other like-minded organizations at the oyster social, like the Mid-Shore Riverkeeper Conservancy and Phillips Wharf Environmental Center, talking about their own Bay restoration efforts to guests of the event.
Kelley Cox, founder of PWEC, said “getting the community involved is what it’s all about.”
“This gets their hands dirty and wet, and they take care of the little baby oysters and then the oysters go out to the sanctuary and they grow up and they start making more. All of a sudden, we’re starting to clean up the Bay,” Cox said.
Cox said the cage program helps people find out more about what’s in the Bay because the cages with oysters attracts all kind of fish and shrimp and even tiny crabs. She said it helps people get excited about the whole premise of oyster restoration and Bay clean-up.
PWEC also runs its cage program through the MGO program. Its growers’ oysters get planted in Harris Creek and, more recently, got a grant to plant them in Broad Creek.
With about 100 growers, PWEC recently planted about 75,000 oyster spat, and next year plans to plant even more since its grower numbers will likely increase, she said.
Eglseder’s group had its oyster cage drop-off day on June 5, helping to plant about 122,000 oyster spat near Channel Marker 11 in the Tred Avon River at a sanctuary called Orem. He said his organization’s growers account for about 5 percent of the amount of growers in the state and handle about 4 percent of the cages in the state for the MGO program.
Judy said there was about a 25-fold increase of oysters on the Orem bottom compared to what was there before when he sampled the site the next day after the planting.
Michael Windsor was one of the volunteers who helped pick up cages on June 5 from growers’ docks for the Oyster Reef Recovery Initiative for plantings in Orem.
Though he didn’t grow oysters this year, Windsor, who lives off the Miles River, said he will in the next cycle.
Windsor said he just wants to leave a positive imprint on the environment and lead by positive example for his children.
He said it’s also a homage to both his father-in-law, Callum Bain — who started the Talbot River Protection Association — and his grandfather, William Bloodsworth, a waterman of Bloodsworth Island.
“They clean the Bay and all the nutrients and waste that are going in from us,” Windsor said. “We need to help what we’re messing up.”
To get involved in the Oyster Reef Recovery Initiative, call Kelsey Payne at 410-822-9143.
Follow me on Twitter @jboll_stardem.