Diving in to help restock bay's dwindling oysters

Project: Volunteers are training to plant millions of the depleted mollusks that filter the Chesapeake Bay's waters.

October 08, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Here in Anne Arundel Community College's swimming pool, the water is clean and the shells are a cinch to spot at the bottom. Not so out there in the silty, filthy Magothy River - the real-life habitat for thousands of oysters.

So in here yesterday, to make it seem more like out there, professional dive instructor John Kiser gave each of his charges two pieces of paper towel to put inside their goggles, to muck up the view a little bit.

"The idea is to foul it [vision] up enough to simulate what's going on in the water," he said. "We're trying to take their vision away from them so when they get in with low visibility they can still accomplish something."

Environmentalists have embarked on a five-year plan to restore the dwindling Chesapeake Bay oyster population, and the folks practicing in the swimming pool yesterday hope to be part of the answer.

The divers - volunteers in training with the Magothy River Association - will help plant millions of new oysters in the river, count the oysters already there, measure them and spot problems with predators or disease.

In the 1880s, 15 million bushels of oysters were harvested in the Maryland portion of the bay, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. In 1994, that had dwindled to 80,000 bushels. Last season, 347,000 bushels were harvested.

The association's goal is to get 40 million oysters into the water during the next five to 10 years. Last month, the association planted 1 million baby oysters, about the size of nickels, at Chest Neck Point. More will follow as the restoration continues and the association applies for federal and state grants to help them.

The planted oysters aren't meant to be harvested and eaten with a shot of Tabasco sauce, though. They will cleanse and filter the waters of the bay and offer habitat to many of the bay's species of plants and fish. To give the Magothy River's oysters time to regenerate, the river will be closed for five years to commercial harvesting, creating a giant sanctuary, said F. Paul Spadaro, president of the Magothy River Association.

"We feel the oysters are more valuable in the water filtering the water than the market value you can get at a raw bar," he said.

"There is no illusion that this is going to be the end all," Spadaro said of the effort to plant the oysters. But, he said, "it does not hurt."

In the water - both in the pool and the river - buoys mark the spots where the oyster bars (the natural kind) sit. The buoys are connected by ropes, and divers will feel their way navigating by holding tight to the rope and their buddies. They will learn to take samples back to the boat to see whether their efforts are working.

Annie Dowgiallo, 15, is a student at Bowie High School and a newly certified diver. She's been in search of an excuse to get in the water and figured helping the oysters' cause would be a good one.

"This is just a new opportunity to do something different," Dowgiallo said as she finished strapping on 60 pounds of gear at yesterday's training session.

Not being able to see, she said, "is kind of scaring me, but I think I'll be able to do it."

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