The Southern Maryland Oyster Cultivation Society strongly supports Gov. Martin O'Malley's Marylanders Grow Oysters initiative, launched in September 2008, because it has the potential for not only creating "living oyster reef populations in sanctuaries" but also achieving a number of other significant environmental, political and economic benefits.

The MGO is simple in concept. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources provides spat-young oysters-free to residents to raise at their docks with the understanding that they return them after 10-12 months for deposit on sanctuaries. It started in 2008 on the Tred Avon River and in 2009 expanded to 11 other tributaries, including the Patuxent River, the focus of our organization.

The initiative has the potential for providing significant collateral benefits that include:

  • Encouraging local communities to use oysters to improve the water quality of nearby creeks. This benefit, in turn, could help the governor build the public support he will need for the much larger $400 million oyster restoration proposals recommended last February by his Oyster Advisory Commission. Public involvement is a critical step in generating community support for raising oysters to help reduce pollution in local creeks.
  • Stimulating innovations that can make community-based oyster restoration programs more attractive. In discussions with the DNR on our participation in the MGO, SMOCS has been able to persuade state officials to consider a broader framework for restoration that includes sanctuaries in local creeks, not just the Bay or large rivers.
    Sanctuaries in the smaller tributaries where residents raise oysters have become powerful incentives for property owners to join our restoration program. Governor O'Malley's comments when he planted the first batch of MGO oysters on a sanctuary in the Tred Avon River indicated that local involvement in oyster cultivation has raised environmental awareness in other locations as well.
  • Supporting the development of the economic infrastructure necessary for the emergence of a viable aquaculture industry in Maryland. Dr. Mark Luckenbach, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has told the OAC that community-based oyster cultivation programs provided two valuable benefits for Virginia aquaculture.

First, they encouraged the emergence of a vital infrastructure to support a new industry: shellfish aquaculture. When communities pursued oyster restoration programs, they needed larvae, spat and the equipment to raise them. This provided a small, but growing market for local businesses.

Second, scientific monitoring of these activities added significantly to scientists' knowledge base about where oysters could be cultivated.

SMOCS has been engaged in oyster restoration since 2007 and was approved this year for the MGO program. We have already seen significant local benefits from our oyster restoration efforts in the form of growing support not only from local residents, but also nearby restaurants, construction companies and marinas.

As we educate the local community about the environmental role of oysters and inform them that they can take concrete steps to restore oysters to nearby waters, their support continues to grow. Involvement in the MGO will enable us to significantly strengthen these efforts.

SMOCS came up with another innovation that could increase the efficiency of oyster cultivation resulting in a five- to tenfold increase in the number of oysters raised for each device at a given dock. We encouraged the development of a new oyster float that has the traditional PVC-pipe frame, but instead of fixed bags, it has a wire cylinder that rotates. We call this a SMOCS BOCS (Buoyant Oyster Cultivation System: pronounced box). It not only eliminates the previous maintenance requirement to lift the heavy wire cages out of the water or flip floats, but it also holds 5,000 spat-on-shell, as opposed to the 500-1,500 spat in traditional cages or floats. This device has evolved yet one more step in that it includes a mechanism that enables the tide to turn the cage so that no maintenance is necessary. Get it and forget it.

Finally, SMOCS strongly supports the MGO program not only because it is likely to significantly increase the number of oysters being raised in the Patuxent, but because it can have much broader implications for cleaning up the Bay.

Such a program can break the sense of helplessness that many of us have in the face of the Bay's seemingly insolvable pollution problems. It can not only give residents and political leaders a sense of empowerment in that we can take small, concrete steps to clean our environment, but also a sense that we must start doing so. Just as pollution grew in small increments, so, too, can we start reducing it, one step at a time.

At an Aug. 11 town hall meeting in Annapolis with the EPA's senior Chesapeake Bay adviser, Chuck Fox, Maryland Del. Ronald A. George observed that the key to cleaning up the Bay is to make local communities part of the solution.

This sentiment was echoed by DNR Secretary John Griffin in a comment about the MGO program at the governor's Tred Avon oyster planting, "As people become more concerned about the future of our children and the future of the planet, they become more interested in becoming part of the solution."

The MGO gives local communities an opportunity to become active participants in much needed solutions.