Program turns pork into oysters

Bivalve recovery effort considered good investment

Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009

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Staff photos by JESSE YEATMAN
Nearly 6 million oysters are dumped onto a sanctuary off Trent Hall in the Patuxent River on Aug. 6.

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Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) talks to others during his ride with scientists and watermen Aug. 6.

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After investing millions of dollars over the last decade, some oyster restoration projects seem to be working, including a few along the Patuxent River.

Several politicians, scientists and watermen spent a rainy midday boat ride Aug. 6 hoping to show that restoration efforts are helping to keep watermen in business.

The tour last week included a visit to Holland Point bar just south of the Benedict bridge, where about 20 million oysters were planted a little more than a year ago, as well as a spot known as Trent Hall bar, just off Bud Virtz's property in northern St. Mary's County, where an underwater remote-controlled camera was deployed to view the thriving oyster sanctuary.

Also last Thursday the Oyster Recovery Partnership dumped overboard almost 6 million oysters on the eight acres of the Trent Hall sanctuary, which is near the home of Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th). On the tour Hoyer said he was glad to see the federally funded programs are working and vowed to keep funding the oyster recovery cause.

"Things are going well," said Virtz, a former secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture and current member of the Oyster Recovery Partnership board.

The non-profit Oyster Recovery Partnership coordinates the federal and state restoration efforts and helps monitor the newly reseeded bars, including some in the Patuxent River. The group also works with watermen to find what is needed economically and environmentally from the efforts to repopulate oysters.

"NOAA is really proud to be a partner in bringing back the native oyster to the Chesapeake Bay," said Peyton Robertson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay office.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released two months ago a study that ended a proposal to introduce non-native Asian oysters into the Chesapeake and its tributaries because of "unacceptable ecological risks." Instead, the directive said, efforts should be focused on restoring the native oyster.

"It's not [a decision] that was very easy and it's not one that everyone was happy with," Robertson admitted, adding his support for the native restoration efforts.

"Yes, we can do this, but boy is it a big job," he said.

The bay's native oyster has declined to just 1 percent of its historic levels, because of pollution, a pair of waterborne diseases and overharvesting.

The oyster population is now at 9 percent of the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program's restoration goal because of a variety of reseeding programs, some of which have been hailed as a success by watermen and scientists.

The combined federal/state investment in in-the-water oyster recovery activities since 1994 has been more than $60 million. 

In the last decade alone NOAA has invested more than $20 million in the bay's oyster recovery programs while the Army Corps has contributed more than $24 million. Several million more dollars are included in this year's budget for the program.

Hoyer said he wanted to show that what he called this "pork" in the federal budget was going to a good cause and making a difference.

"The Obama administration has made the Chesapeake Bay a major national priority," Hoyer said.

Hoyer said that citizens need confidence that their investment into oyster restoration is paying off.

Hoyer said the investment will pay back in real dollars for watermen as well as others, including those that benefit from the state's tourism industry.

"It's a good investment," the congressman said.

One breakthrough in the restoration process came when researchers and others realized the best way for the oysters to grow was to attach the spat to old oyster shells before dumping them onto the sanctuaries. Baby oysters must to attach to a solid surface, something that otherwise doesn't exist on the muddy, silt-covered bottom of most of the Patuxent.

"It's a boost to the watermen," said Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert County Watermen's Association. "We're opening up acres [of oysters to harvesting] during the fall when the price is at a premium."

The public sanctuaries are opened up periodically and the number of oysters harvested is monitored closely. Once a certain number is reached, the area is again closed to harvesting for the season to allow for continued growth.

"It's like a controlled harvest," Zinn said. "We monitor what comes off and what goes in."

A bar is opened to harvest once 50 percent of the oysters are estimated to be 4 inches or larger. The legal limit for an oyster is 3 inches, which takes between two and three years to reach.

There are also privately leased sanctuaries throughout the bay and its tributaries. The Calvert Watermen's Association maintains a bar in the southern section of the Patuxent River. Members who helped propagate the bar, including planting some 11 million oysters, are allowed to harvest oysters.

While the oysters are growing, they are working to filter the water and act as a reef for other sea life, including crabs and fish.

"We've actually seen the water quality improve in that area," Zinn said.

The restoration effort this year turned to waterfront homeowners to help in the cause. A dozen Maryland rivers, including the Patuxent, Wicomico and St. Mary's, are participating in the Marylanders Grow Oysters program starting this summer by raising oysters in cages from piers. The mature oysters will be collected next year and planted in local oyster bars.