New Oyster Cult

13-year-old Whitney Hoot is the hero of Warehouse Creek, where she has enlisted neighbors to help save the bay by raising baby oysters.

November 14, 2001|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

WHITNEY HOOT did not set out to save the Chesapeake Bay. To be honest, the Girl Scout project that brought her the attention was not even her idea. "Actually," says Whitney, sitting on her couch one day after school and eating Tagalongs, "I didn't want to do this."

She can admit this now, a few months after she galvanized her Anne Arundel County community into action and learned something about the nature of giving along the way.

Because of Whitney, thousands of young oysters, or spats, are floating in cages from 24 piers outside her window. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which oversaw Whitney's effort, says that's how the program works best: One person enlists another and so on. Then one day, oysters might stand a chance of repopulating the depleted bay.

In Whitney's case, it didn't exactly start out that way. "Well, actually," says Whitney, "I'm a very animal-caring, animal-friendly person, and I wanted to do something animal-oriented." Her ponytail swings from side to side as she talks, and dimples appear in her cheeks. Whitney, the accidental hero of Warehouse Creek, is only 13.

Her mother, Lynne Hoot, put the idea of oyster farming into Whitney's head. She had seen how oysters cleared the water on Harness Creek, where they canoe. The idea, though, went nowhere until Whitney bought into her mom's notion that such a project, if it involved the community, could make a difference for years to come.

"I didn't care about the topic," Whitney says, peeling off her socks and depositing them onto the floor. "That's probably like a bad thing to say, because I should have cared about it, but at that point I didn't know enough."

She says this, then helps herself to another Tagalong. Boxes of Thin Mints sit on the coffee table near the door. She has just come home from Central Middle School, where she's an eighth-grader. Today, there's no French Club, no SGA, no swim team practice, no cookies to deliver. Today, there's time for the young environmentalist to reflect.

Coming out of her shell

Her first hurdle was to convince waterfront property owners along her tributary of the South River to pay $75 for oyster cages and spats spawned at the University of Maryland's hatchery on the Eastern Shore. With the money, her neighbors were committing to a three-hour training class taught by the foundation, cleaning algae off the cages every two weeks (with a break in winter), and keeping an eye on 4,000 growing oysters for nine months. They would have to be alert for predators like flatworms and be vigilant against blue crabs that might wander into the cages and molt.

Whitney's mother worried it would be a tough sell. So Whitney promoted the benefits in her newsletter, Project Oyster: "The Creek has slowly deteriorated and it is getting worse. Whenever there is a rainstorm our creek becomes polluted with sediment in the form of runoff. The water from the Safeway parking lot, South River Colony, and the new construction on Route 2 flows straight into our creek and the water becomes mud-brown."

She anticipated questions, and fired back persuasive answers. "What do I have to do?" Mr. Hopkins might ask. The Zilinskas might want to know, "Is this like buying Girl Scout cookies?"

"No," Whitney wrote (in Volume 1, Issue 1). "This is not a lifetime commitment. Well, you're not signing your soul away or anything like that, but you have the opportunity to continue with your oyster garden for as many years as you would like."

Another question she thought her neighbors might ask: "Do I have the right conditions to grow oysters?"

"Well," Whitney wrote, "oysters aren't too picky about where they live, but they do need at least one foot of water at the lowest tide and 3 parts per thousand salinity."

As for what happens when the oysters are grown, Whitney explained that their home would be a Maryland Department of Natural Resources sanctuary reef, which she hopes will be close to their creek.

At the bottom of the second page, just in case, she added this: "And yes, I will take orders for Girl Scout cookies!"

The power of persuasion

It turned out to be an easy sell (and not just the cookies.) Whitney didn't have to remind anyone the number of bay oysters has dropped to 2 percent of its one-time high. She was ready to explain how oysters filter water and how their reefs become habitats for other creatures, but in the end it wasn't necessary.

A few people declined, and some of the renters never answered the knock at their doors, but half of her neighbors said yes. And that's where Whitney learned something about the giving.

Whitney discovered why the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has seen the number of Maryland oyster gardens grow to 600, increasing from an estimated 50 to 100 new gardens a year to 200 in each of the last two years.

As she went from house to house, people said, "I saw this in the paper. I heard about it, and I always wanted to do it." They said, "Thank you, Whitney. You showed me how."

Her mother was right. Just by doing she had made a difference, whether she'd meant to or not.

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