You can help oyster restoration endeavors and eat the bivalve, too.

“Oyster gardening” opportunities abound on Chesapeake Bay. Many people have been growing oysters for personal consumption for years and now those gardeners, as well as new gardeners, are being encouraged to grow extra oysters for restoration.

Mark Luckenbach, of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, says oyster gardeners can make a difference. Oysters grown and planted by school groups and private gardeners on reefs constructed in the Lynnhaven River increased spat set — the number of young oysters that successfully latch onto solid substrate and begin growing — by 23 times. A similar increase was observed in the western branch of the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, VA after reef restocking there.

P>Both Virginia and Maryland are developing “Master Gardener” programs that will train selected oyster gardeners to collect oyster and water-quality data and answer questions for new gardeners.

Oyster gardeners raise oysters from 1/4–1/2 inch “seed” — tiny, young oysters — to harvestable size within 12–14 months. Oyster seed, also called spat, are nursery-raised on shell, then packaged with the shell into mesh bags. Spat are usually distributed to gardeners in September or October.

Gardeners raise their charges in floats that attach to docks. Moderate salinity and flowing water that isn’t too high-energy produces the fastest-growing oysters. These floating baskets are often made of plastic or metal mesh with openings large enough to allow water flow, but small enough to prevent oysters from falling through the mesh. Algae and other aquatic creatures must be periodically cleaned off the basket and the floating “garden” must be protected from otters, raccoons and other predators.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has trained more than 500 citizen oyster gardeners at their Oyster Gardening Workshops, and has engaged dozens of school classes throughout the region as part of the CBF “Oyster Corps.” Oyster gardeners raise baby oysters for about a year. During the fall, and sometimes spring, gardeners and students have a chance to help crew a CBF workboat and deposit their charges onto protected reefs.

Next fall, the CBF’s school-based program is collaborating with VIMS to compare long-term survival of selectively bred, disease-tolerant CROSBreed oysters with Lynnhaven “survivors” in the Lafayette River. Students will grow and stock more than 100,000 oysters on reefs that will be monitored by VIMS.

Maryland’s Oyster Recovery Partnership focuses on in-the-water projects. ORP volunteers help grow oysters at the state’s Horn Point hatchery. These baby oysters are distributed to oyster gardeners, who grow them for a year. Gardeners, with the help of ORP volunteers, plant year-old oysters on oyster bars, in sanctuaries or on public grounds in cooperation with local communities. ORP volunteers planted 18.5 million baby oysters in 1998 and are expected to plant more than 20 million in 1999.

In Virginia, the Tidewater Oyster Gardening Association provides nursery-grown oyster seed and coordinates projects with VIMS, VMRC, CBF and local communities. The Tidewater Oyster Gardening Association sells oyster seed to more than 200 oyster gardeners and sponsors float-building workshops and oyster gardening training sessions.

Gardeners can purchase a minimum of 1,000 spat, but the average gardener typically starts with about 2,000 spat per year. Many gardeners both enjoy their harvest and contribute extra oysters to local restoration efforts.

Numerous local river and community groups are helping restoration efforts by oyster gardening. Contact your local river association to see if they’re participating or call one of the organizations listed below. To learn more about oyster gardening or when float-building workshops will take place, contact:

  • Chesapeake Bay Foundation— In Maryland, contact Stew Harris at 410-268-8816; in Virginia, contact Rob Brumbaugh at 757-622-1964.

  • Tidewater Oyster Gardening Association — Contact Jodie Partin at 804-694-4407.

  • Maryland Oyster Recovery Partnership — Contact Mary Jo Garreis at 410-269-5570.