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Raising Backyard Oysters

by Reid Pierce Armstrong

Video shot by Reid Pierce Armstrong and edited by Mike Kucera.
On a calm day, even in the middle of summer, you can see clear to the bottom of Little Creek. Aquatic life thrives here. The water is teeming with fish, crabs and shrimp.

Located off the mouth of the Great Wicomico River in Northumberland County, Little Creek suits its name. A quarter-mile long and about 50 feet wide at its mouth, it is well flushed by the tides that wash in and out from the bay. The water here is low in salinity and clean enough for oyster eaters to slurp down their harvest raw if they so choose.

It’s the way an estuary is supposed to look, thanks in large part to the oyster gardens here.

About a dozen piers jut into the small creek, and all but two of those have an oyster garden floating off their docks. In all, there are probably some 30,000 oysters being cultivated along that abbreviated waterway. As a result, natural reefs are thriving at the headwaters and the bulkheads that line the creek are splattered with natural oyster strikes.

Oyster gardening is like having an outdoor aquarium, said Master Oyster Gardener Brian Woods, who has watched a mini-oyster reef grow off the end of his dock here, attracting a variety of species.

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Clockwise from top left: The Taylor Float, Flip Float and Delano Float.
Oysters are the bay’s primary filtration system. One mature oyster can clean some 50 gallons of water per day.

When Captain John Smith explored the bay 400 years ago, the oyster reefs were so great that they crested the water. These shell reefs, like the coral reefs in warmer waters, were living habitat for all sorts of aquatic life, including sponges, shrimp, crabs, fish and sharks.

The water in the Chesapeake Bay is said to have been as clear as the Caribbean back then. In those days, scientists say the oysters could filter the entire bay in a single day.

Unchecked harvesting of oysters in the 19th century coupled with the introduction of oyster disease and heavy development across the mid-Atlantic this century has thrown off the balance, leaving the estuary clinging to life, struggling to breathe under the heavy sediment and pollution that pours into its waters from the dozen major rivers that feed into it. 

But, residents of other tributaries, like those of Little Creek, are starting to take the bay’s health into their own hands. Growing only 1,000 oysters off the end of a dock can help to improve the health of the water in your own backyard. A handful of neighbors can change the health of an entire stretch of creek.

The oysters create a mini-habitat, attracting crabs and fish. As the water clears, grasses begin to grow on the bottom again, attracting more wildlife. The estuary begins to heal.

Like backyard chickens
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Brian Wood pulls his Taylor Floats.
Oyster gardening got its start in the mid-1990s when Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) researchers suggested having citizens grow oysters from their docks as a way to help clean up the bay.

Today more than 2,000 people in Virginia and Maryland maintain oyster gardens.

Peter Perina of Mathews was one of the bay’s very first oyster gardeners. A clam digger from Long Island, he had seen what happened to waters that succumb to pollution.

He first tried to market the concept of oyster gardening to commercial growers without much luck in the late 1980s, he said, but soon turned his focus to homeowners.

“The idea was similar to having a few chickens,” Perina said. “I thought it could be something homeowners would do for the table or for some side income. All you need is a dock and the proper water salinity.”

Perina hosted a few oyster gardening workshops, introduced hundreds of people to the concept, and a new movement was started.

“When you are getting your food and making your living from the water, you automatically become an environmentalist,” he said. “If you are taking something from the water and eating it, you want to see the water be the cleanest place it can. There’s an awareness that comes about as well, and you begin to see what an important role the oyster plays in the grand scheme of things.”

The early oyster gardeners were just stumbling along, trying anything that worked, Perina said. Mostly they set spat on shell inside of large tanks and then planted them on the creek bottom.

Around the same time, across the bay, a researcher named Mark Luckenbach was working with a commercial grower named Jake Taylor on ways of using aquaculture to kick start the oyster industry. Taylor came up with a floating device that would bring the oysters off the bottom where they could outgrow disease.

“It was a new era of social consciousness in regards to the Chesapeake Bay,” Oesterling said. “People were starting to look at oysters not just as a food item but as a way to clean up their little part of the bay. They wanted to learn how to raise oysters, not just to eat, but to put back into their home creeks. The phone calls started getting more numerous from private individuals wanting to know how to start an oyster garden.”

Some of those individuals, including Jackie Parton, Leslie Bowie and Lynn Lair, recognized the need for an organization to help educate the general public and connect this budding community of oyster gardeners. They called themselves the Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association or TOGA.

With a grant from the state, VIMS joined with TOGA to develop the Master Oyster Gardeners program, which trained volunteers to help with education, recruiting and training. Master Oyster Gardeners now appear at workshops, festivals and markets across the region to offer advice to the public and get more people involved in growing their own oysters.

As the oyster gardeners have grown more savvy, so has their equipment. New floats are being developed every year that are lighter, more compact and easier to maintain. Meanwhile, the oyster strains are continuously improving, gaining more disease resistance and faster growing times. Varieties have been developed that are better suited to particular salinities.

Getting a fall start

The best way to get started gardening is to attend a workshop, said TOGA president Vic Spain. Decide whether you are interested in growing oysters to eat, to put back or both.

Oysters can be grown to eat or to be planted on oyster reef sanctuaries in the bay.

Many waters in the area have been condemned for commercial harvesting by the Virginia Department of Shellfish Sanitation, but growing oysters in those areas is all the more important, Spain said.

Oyster gardeners who don’t want to eat their catch can choose to participate with VIMS researchers through the GREEN program or with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation through its replenishment program.

Spain donates his oysters to nearby reef sanctuaries or takes them up the creek to a friend’s dock in cleaner water to flush them out for two weeks before harvesting them.

Dr. Lynton Land, a retired geology professor, has been gardening oysters off his property on the Little Wicomico River for a decade. Land said he believes it’s safe and legal to harvest oysters from condemned waters for personal consumption as long as they are cooked, although nobody from the state would go on the record to confirm that opinion.

There are a number of different ways to grow an oyster garden. Taylor Floats are still widely used, but they take up a lot of space and can weigh 300 pounds. They are awkward to pull from the water, clean and tend unless you have a winch, Land said. Regardless, they are still the most popular floats among serious gardeners since the smaller floats aren’t practical for anyone raising more than a couple thousand oysters, Land said.

All oyster cages get fouled with algae and barnacles. Those that float toward the surface will tend to foul more quickly. Since water circulation is the most important element to an oyster’s growth, keeping the cages clean is critical.

Land recommends that a new oyster gardener start small, with something that hangs over the dock, sits beneath the water’s surface and is easy to lift. The Delano float is made of only a shell bag and quarter inch PVC and can be built at the TOGA workshop for only $15.

A UV-resistant Float Bag made of mesh, floats and zip ties is sold by local vendors. It floats at the surface but can be easily shaken and flipped every few weeks for maintenance.

A thousand oysters cost only $25-$30 depending on the variety. So a new oyster gardener can set up shop for about $40.

The Tazmanian float is also small and easy to manage for a beginning gardener and costs about $30.

There is a new float called the Flip Float, which sits at the surface but can be turned over to kill algae buildup. It costs about $50 and can hold a larger quantity of oysters.

Taylor floats can cost upwards of $75. Durable bottom cages and trays are available for serious oyster gardeners and are also used by commercial growers.

Plenty of resources are available online for oyster gardeners through TOGA, the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Oysters can be grown in water with a salinity higher than 6 or 7 parts per thousand. The pier should reach out far enough to protect the oysters during a winter freeze when the tides recede.

“An oyster garden is just like a vegetable garden,” Oesterling said. “The more you pull and thin, the better the production. It’s not just a matter of putting the basket next to the dock and watching them grow. You have to get the crabs out to the pots and take care of the oysters. It’s not difficult, but it’s something you need to do.”

The best time to start an oyster garden is in the fall, when water temperatures are cooling and predators are starting to leave. Oysters get several months of growth in the fall and spring before the water warms, salinity increases, and disease and predators become a major threat. The goal is to get an oyster to reach three inches before it is harvested.

Several organizations in the area put on workshops in September to provide people with the information they need to get started, including the opportunity to purchase seed and cages. 

posted 08.27.2009

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