Oyster Gardens Offer Budding Hope For Bay

November 21, 1991|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff writer

If the demise of the Chesapeake Bay weighs heavily upon your conscience, if you remember wistfully when the bay and its tributaries teemed with oysters, Michelle Cummins says she has the answer.

Grow your own.

By growing your own oysters -- under your pier, off your boat, wherever -- you not only help increase the number of oysters in the bay, but because the shellfish are natural filters, you also help improve the water, Cummins says.

The petite, 24-year-old Pasadena resident is gambling that growing your own oysters is an idea whose time has come. She and her husband, Stephen, formed the P. Cummins Oyster Co. last spring, opening a small nursery off her parents' pier at Peep Hatch Point on the Magothy River.

Although she eventually hopes tosell her "crop" to restaurants, Cummins says she sees opportunities in the grow-your-own market as well. The market, still in its infant stage, appears ready to take off, Cummins says.

Since last spring,she says she has helped about 30 waterfront residents along the Magothy and near St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore set up oyster farms beneath their piers. And she made a sales pitch to members of the Severn River Association, which represents civic groups throughout the scenic river's watershed, Tuesday night.

Cummins stresses that oysters grown under piers should not be eaten, because they might contain bacteria from sewage carried into the tributaries with the rain. "You'd grow your own strictly for environmental reasons, to help clean up the bay," she says.

Although some environmentalists are concerned that the oyster may be used as a panacea for serious water pollution problems, William Goldsborough, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says, "It's not quackery at all. People shouldn't go into it with false expectations, but they can make a contribution with what I call an 'oyster garden.' "

Goldsborough says the oysters filter water "very much like an aquarium filter" as they eat, removing sediments, algae and other pollutants. What they don't digest, they concentrate into pellets that settle harmlessly on the bottom of the bay,he said. A single oyster can filter nearly 50 gallons a day, he says.

A hundred years ago, the bay's oyster population filtered the bay every three days. With the oysters' dwindling numbers, the same process now takes more than a year. To halt the decline, the Bay Foundation proposed a controversial ban on commercial harvesting this summer.

Goldsborough cautions that anyone who invests in a "grow-your-own" project like Cummins' should expect some of the oysters to succumbto diseases, such as Dermo and MSX, and natural predators, includingcrabs.

But "any oysters you can put in the water will help," Goldsborough says.

The county Department of Public Works has expressedinterest in growing oysters in a pilot program on Rock Creek, PublicWorks spokeswoman Anne Sieling said. That waterway has been the target of intensive cleanup efforts, including dredging and experimental aerators that inject oxygen into the water.

How did Cummins, a 1988 biology graduate from Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, become interested in aquaculture?

"Growing oysters wasn't a dream at age 3 or anything," Cummins says. "But I've always had an environmental bent and my family has always loved sailing."

Cummins opted to cultivate oysters, rather than rockfish -- which already has shown market success -- because the shellfish are "filtering animals -- I thought that was kind of neat."

The idea of breeding and farming oysters --as opposed to harvesting them from natural oyster bars -- is not new, Cummins says. The technique she uses, growing the oysters in floating trays beneath piers, was developed 25 years ago by Shady Side resident Frank "Bud" Wilde.

The idea is not new to residents along theMagothy River.Disturbed that so much attention was being devoted to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and so little to the tributaries, members of the Magothy River Association began experimenting with oystersoff their own piers two years ago.

"We felt strongly that we haveto put the critters that belong on the bottom of the river back there," Christian Kurrle, association vice president, said. "Most of the critters, you know, are dead."

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