Oysters are simple creatures; they have no centralized nervous system and take in nutrients passively through water filtration. Their impacts on the Chesapeake Bay, however, are multi-faceted and far-reaching. They have cultural, economic and biological significance that goes far beyond their humble station as filter-feeders. The Edgewater, Maryland-based South River Federation and John Flood, one of its founders, understand that restoring the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary, the South River, means oysters need to have a fighting chance and some good real estate.
Throughout an oyster’s lifetime—which ranges from several years to twenty years in captivity—it will filter about 50 gallons of water a day, every day. If one oyster lived for four years, it could filter 73 thousand gallons of water, effectively removing contaminants and algae in its pursuit of nutrients. Multiply that by the thousands of oysters on a sanctuary reef and you’ve got some serious and sustainable filtration power to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers.
One of the hurdles facing oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay is how vulnerable the oysters are in their first year of life. If the baby oysters, or spat, are simply dumped into the water and left they can contract disease, become food or succumb to nutrient pollution. To combat this, John Flood began growing oysters in repurposed paint buckets. The buckets hang suspended in the water off of docks for their first year, then Flood and volunteers load up his small fishing boat or the Federation’s Carolina Skiff with adolescent oysters and takes them to a sanctuary reef where harvesting is prohibited.
These “Flood buckets” don’t need much until they are ready to be transferred to a sanctuary reef. Growers need to make sure the oysters remain submerged but off the bottom and clean them off every couple of weeks to prevent too much algae from collecting on the cages and restricting circulation. At the end of the year, they take their briny charges to join a sanctuary reef where they will hopefully live out their lives performing their simple function of siphoning nutrients from the current.
On September 23, 2016, volunteers from Price Waterhouse Cooper went through the labor intensive, muddy but important work of emptying the almost 200 buckets hanging from a private marina dock in Flood’s waterfront Annapolis neighborhood. Busy dislodging oysters from their first homes with a combination of sledge hammers and vigorous shaking, they were careful to allow the fish, eels and crabs that made their home in the buckets to evacuate. Once free, the oysters were ferried to their new homes on the South River sanctuary reef.
Flood is the “godfather of citizens growing oysters,” according to Nancy Merrill, Volunteer and Outreach Program Coordinator for the South River Federation. He’s also a salty guy with a lot of intensity. Concerned about poaching on the sanctuary reefs, Flood and Merrill don’t like to share the exact location. “If we showed it to you we’d have to kill you,” Flood joked with volunteers.
Flood felt a great sense of loss when he saw the dismal state of the South River: dead underwater grass beds, chemical contamination and major oyster reef degradation. This was the river he spent his childhood fishing and swimming in, and that long-standing connection called him to action. “I watched it collapse from nutrient pollution when I was a boy,” he said, adding later, “I lost something that was too valuable not to fight to get it back.” By helping to found the South River Federation in 2000, he hopes to aid in bringing back underwater grass beds and oysters, thereby improving the river and the Chesapeake Bay for future generations.
There are close to 70 oyster growers working directly with the South River Federation, who partners with Maryland Department of Natural Resource’s Marylanders Grow Oysters Program. Through the state’s program that works with local groups, 1,500 waterfront property owners on 30 Bay tributaries are growing millions of young oysters for sanctuary reefs.
“The lonely oyster, to me, is the symbol of recovery,” Flood said. “And if we would let it work, respect its simple function in the Bay, harvest it sustainably and realize its importance as a keystone species then we can understand the Bay better and be better stewards.”
Text, images and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson