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By Don Webster, Eastern Shore Area Agent and Don Merritt, Shellfish Aquaculture Specialist, published by Maryland Sea Grant, University of Maryland - If you thought that the only reason to raise oysters was for market, there are several hundred people in Maryland and Virginia who would disagree with you. And eighty of them recently showed up in Annapolis to learn more about how to do it.

Citizen's Oyster Forum - By Don Webster, Eastern Shore Area Agent and Don Merritt, Shellfish Aquaculture Specialist, published by Maryland Sea Grant, University of Maryland - If you thought that the only reason to raise oysters was for market, there are several hundred people in Maryland and Virginia who would disagree with you. And eighty of them recently showed up in Annapolis to learn more about how to do it.

There has been a great increase in awareness of how important oysters are in the Chesapeake Bay. From the billions of animals that literally paved the Bay in the past century, today's population has dwindled through overharvest, disease, and mismanagement. The elimination of oysters has also brought destruction of oyster reefs themselves, an important habitat for other organisms.

Numbers of efforts are underway to reverse the incalculable loss of oysters to the Bay ecosystem - they range from the Oyster Disease Research Program, in which the National Sea Grant College has been supporting innovative methods for combatting disease, to oyster reef rehabilitation projects, to citizen programs for rearing oysters to maturity.

Two years ago, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) began an Oyster Gardening Program designed to involve shoreline property owners in raising young oysters that would then be planted on newly created sanctuary reefs. Citizens received some training in how to keep oysters clean or preventing biofouling, how to monitor them for growth and survival, and how to construct "Taylor" floats for rearing them off bottom.

At about the same time, the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) was organizing volunteers to fill shell bags for placement in setting tanks with hatchery-spawned oyster larvae; once the eyed larvae had "set" on the shell - they are called "spat" at this stage - the bags would then be moved to nursery areas and planted in areas where they could be monitored. The objectives of these plantings are to restore oysters to small habitats and learn more about managing around the diseases MSX and Dermo, which have so devastated efforts aimed at oyster rehabilitation in the Chesapeake Bay and mid-Atlantic waters.

In 1997, the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science joined with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Oyster Recovery Partnership to form the Oyster Alliance. The Alliance brought the expertise of each group to expand oyster restoration and education activities in Maryland's portion of the Bay. A Project Development Grant from Maryland Cooperative Extension helped develop an annual training program; this "Citizen's Oyster Forum" helps provide updated information and further training to the oyster gardening community.

At the Forum, lead-off speakers from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Oyster Recovery Partnership summarized program activities during the past year. Bill Goldsborough, CBF Chief Scientist, summarized the changes that have occurred in the Bay from the time that Captain John Smith first arrived. He brought everyone up to date on the state of the Oyster Gardening Program and discussed some future plans. Bob Pfeiffer of ORP gave an overview of the organization's plans for oyster planting in 1999.

Mary Jo Garreis of ORP, and former head of the state's shellfish monitoring program, provided a word of warning to those who want to raise oysters for consumption. She advised growers to make sure waters near their piers were safe from any form of contamination; there is a vast difference, she stressed, between raising oysters for restoration projects and for eating.

If you want to find out about successes and failures of oyster gardening, the best way is to ask the gardeners. A panel of four of them provided an excellent overview of their experiences. Phil Conner of Crockett Brothers Boat Yard in Oxford showed the signs he posted around the marina that informed boaters he was raising oysters in the floats; he said that people became very interested in the project and that he then began to notice a decrease in the amount of detergent and other contaminants that boaters would use to clean their boats. Other gardeners told of how they got started working on projects and of their increasing interest.

Don Meritt, Maryland Sea Grant Shellfish Aquaculture Specialist, showed how the University's Horn Point hatchery operated. He demonstrated many oyster propagation methods from around the world to show how growers adapted to local animals and conditions using innovative techniques.

The keynote speaker was Dr. Stan Allen of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Allen, one of the country's top shellfish geneticists, spoke of the CROSBreed (Cooperative Regional Oyster Selective Breeding Program) oysters that he is working on with other institutions. These are animals that have been bred over several generations to exhibit greater resistance to MSX and Dermo, the two major oyster diseases plaguing the northeast. CROSBreed oysters may be one of the primary means by which the oyster industry is able to survive; they will be used in some of the hatchery production for gardening projects this summer.

Don Webster and Dan Jacobs of Maryland Sea Grant provided overviews of two developing efforts of the Oyster Alliance, and asked the audience for comments. Webster discussed the Master Oyster Gardener Program that will be started in 1999 in Maryland. Individuals will receive in-depth training in oyster aquaculture subjects and serve as the principal contact in their area for production questions and data collection. Jacobs is developing a Sea Grant web site on the oyster that will include many different sub-topics. One of these will be a link for Oyster Gardening where growers will be able to get the latest information on how to grow oysters and follow the progress of the oysters they raised after they're planted on a reef.

Evaluations by participants rated the Forum very highly and clearly indicated the desire for programs in the future. The planning staff will use the information to put together more educational programs to further enhance the efforts of citizens in bringing back the important oyster resource and increasing the benthic communities in our waters.

Source: Maryland Sea Grant - University of Maryland - May 2004.

the Fish Site Editor

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