As population of oysters drops in bay, a new type of farming takes seed Against the Tide

July 06, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Writer

On a narrow wooden pier jutting out into the Magothy River, Michelle Powell Cummins sifts through the gravelly silt at the bottom of a wooden tray like a prospector panning for gold.

But she's looking for oysters, not nuggets. Ms. Powell Cummins is one of Maryland's few oyster farmers. She doesn't expect to find gold in the Magothy. But she'd like to make a little money with her oyster patch.

In the tray, her oysters are almost microscopic, hard to see on the crushed shell on which they're "set," but there are thousands of them. Possibly more than all the mature oysters sent to market from Maryland waters last season, which was a sad enough 148,000 bushels (actually up a bit from previous years). A couple of hundred thousand or so teeny, tiny oysters inhabit the trays Ms. Powell Cummins is tending.

"See that really thin layer of growth there -- that's new," she says, displaying a chip of an oyster. "These guys have been in here three days. They'll stay here until they grade off on the quarter-inch mesh, then they'll go over in the pond on the South River.

"I want to try to have 500,000 in the water for next year," she says. "I have sales for 250,000, which I need to meet. I also need 200,000 for sale this year. I'd think these guys would be 1 inch by August."

But, so far, she's actually more of a nursery operator than a farmer, more environmentalist than aquaculturist.

"A lot of my market is 1- to 2-inch oysters for gardens and reef restoration," she says. "At this point, all my sales are going to that. If I keep 500,000 for next year, I should have enough for restaurant sales for next year.

"So this is kind of fun. I really enjoy these guys."

Ms. Powell Cummins scampers about the pier near Pasadena, tanned, lithe and a few months pregnant with her and husband Stephen's first child. She's 27 and a 1988 graduate of Swarthmore College in marine studies.

Farming bivalves

"I always had wanted to farm some bivalve," she says, " 'always' meaning since my sophomore year in college, when I realized oysters were it."

She worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod and the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomons Island, and did a couple of internships with oyster projects at the University of Washington.

They farm the Japanese oyster, Crassostrea gigas, on the Northwest coast and widely around the world, notably in England and France. The French are perhaps the world's greatest oyster eaters and the great French oysters like La Rochelle's fin de clair are now almost all farmed gigas.

The East Coast and Gulf Coast oyster is Crassostrea virginica, the most revered of which have been plump, stately and increasingly rare Chincoteagues. The alien gigas are barred from the bay.

After college, Ms. Powell Cummins wanted to go look at how they farm oysters in Europe. She's a pretty good sailor, so she got to Britain aboard U.S. Women's Challenge, the yacht entered, but unraced, in the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race.

She talked oyster culture with growers at Whitstable, a famous oyster town since Roman times, a place again where virtually all oysters are farm-grown.

"I actually worked as a consultant with this fishing company on the Isle of Wight, which had bought some oyster leases and didn't have an idea of what to do with them," she says. "I used that money to get down to France and Jersey and Guernsey to check out their systems. Then I came back here."

On the pier in the Magothy, her oyster aquaculture starts with a series of pumps and white plastic tubes watering a half-dozen sieve-like trays -- a "down-welling" system because the water comes in at the top and goes out at the bottom.

"See how meager and low-cost everything is," she says, laughing. "But it works."

Life begins

Her oysters begin life as "spat" -- larvae she buys wherever she can legally. They "set" on minute pieces of shell and start growing into oysters. When they get to about a quarter-inch, she puts them into mesh plastic bags. Off the end of the pier, a few bags of oysters grow like well-fed gourmands.

Ms. Powell Cummins pulls up a bag and drops it on the pier.

"See these guys, growing in here?" she says. "They're all about 2-inch oysters. This is what provides the habitat. There's a few shrimp and things I see in here. And see all this algae growing on the bottom?

"But the biggest thing you're going to notice is all these littlguys right here and that's what everybody comes and feeds on. All those little shrimp. The arthropods and the isopods. That's what the ducks will come to feed on. The fish will come to feed on. The crabs will come to feed on."

She lifts the bag and the planks underneath are covered with translucent little beasties scurrying hither and yon, around and about.

"All I really see in here now is a good barnacle set. I'm sure there are some crabs and stuff," she says, tentatively. Then happily: "Here's a little crab, right here!"

The little fellow is about as big as a baby's toenail.

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