Today at Sandy Point State Park, during a celebration of seafood and the Chesapeake Bay, Robert M. Pfeiffer intends to put on a chef's hat and conduct an oyster soup cook-off. His appearance on the first day of a two-day event known as `D Chesapeake Appreciation Days is part of a savory fund-raiser.
A few days ago, Pfeiffer was wearing a coat and tie, trying to enlist a pair of designers for his dream machine: a winch that could mechanize the laborious process of restoring the bay's devastated oyster population.
Early last week, Pfeiffer was in a wet suit, up to his chest in the cold Choptank River as he helped 35 Dorchester County high school students seed the once-bountiful waters with oyster spat, or young.
"We need more oysters than Mother Nature can produce," said Pfeiffer, explaining the motivation behind his varied roles as director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, based in Annapolis.
Human and natural forces have combined to ravage what was once the pillar of the bay's seafood industry. After nearly a century of gradually dwindling harvests, the catch has been dismal since the late 1980s when two parasitic diseases swept through the species.
Three years ago, with the ailing oyster stock at an all-time low, watermen, environmentalists, scientists and state officials put aside differences to create an experimental plan they hoped would bring back the bivalves.
The Oyster Recovery Partnership was formed to coordinate and oversee its execution.
Pfeiffer, 51, who became director almost two years ago, attacks the job with a blend of evangelism, hustle and businesslike calculation. He has to, because he is the only paid employee and the group's $100,000 budget relies largely on government grants.
The former high school science teacher, part-time crabber and building contractor from Calvert County has impressed observers with his energy, common-sense approach and ability to bring together sometimes prickly people.
"I think Bob has done a great job of keeping people's eyes on the prize," said Jack Greer, assistant director for the Maryland Sea Grant College.
"The partnership is one of the few real breakthroughs in the way we approach oysters that we've had in recent years," said William Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who is on the partnership board.
The chief obstacle to reviving the bay's oysters is disease. There are no known cures for either Dermo or MSX; the two single-cell organisms kill oysters before they can reach harvestable size. The diseases are no threat to humans who may eat infected shellfish.
The "oyster round table," as the restoration agreement was known, calls for trying various methods of planting and cultivating oysters in six rivers around the bay, hoping to elude disease.
With the help of student volunteers and watermen, Pfeiffer and others have planted oysters in the Choptank for the past two years. A University of Maryland hatchery at Horn Point provided disease-free shellfish.
Though too early to conclude much, about 60 percent of the baby oysters planted in summer 1995 have survived, which scientists say is a good sign, considering the diseases and heavy flows of fresh water this year that have also killed some shellfish. Oysters need at least slightly salty water to live.
As another oyster season began this week, a note of frustration crept into Pfeiffer's voice. He noted that last year's harvest of 200,000 bushels was seen as "improved" even though it was just one-fifth of the catch nine years ago. It was only about 1 percent of a typical annual harvest at the industry's peak in 1884-1885.
"Man can step in and spawn oysters," he said. "But how can we move these things around with maximum efficiency. And I don't think [the labor of] 35 high school students is maximum efficiency."
He envisions a mechanized process that would spread huge quantities of shells and seed oysters. Successful private oyster aquaculture operations on the West Coast and in Long Island Sound rely on machinery, not muscle power, he said.
Pfeiffer rents office space from the Maryland Watermen's Association, and he is working with watermen from Southern Maryland on a plan to rebuild oyster reefs in the Patuxent River while allowing them to use modern dredges to harvest the bottom.
Pfeiffer is also is working with the bay foundation and community groups to restore oysters to the Severn River in Anne Arundel County. Watermen once harvested oysters from the river, which flows into the bay at Annapolis. But pollution brought that to a halt. Oysters help filter polluting nutrients out of the water, and the reefs of layered shell provide habitat for blue crabs, fish and hTC other aquatic life.
"You still find oysters in the Severn," Pfeiffer said, "but you don't find the numbers." What Pfeiffer and his meagerly funded group would like to discover is whether "by increasing the oyster population, is it possible to improve water quality?"
The answer may be critical to saving the bay. A study suggests that reducing nutrient pollution by 40 percent, the cornerstone of the bay restoration effort, may be futile unless the population of oysters and other shellfish can be increased to improve filtration.
The species may get a boost from a pledge made last summer by federal and state governments. The commitment is to spend up to $21 million rebuilding reefs and planting oysters spawned in state hatcheries. Pfeiffer said the money may help "if Maryland is aggressive" in how and where it tries to restore reefs and oysters.
Pub Date: 10/05/96