KENT NARROWS - On the surface, the stretch of water between the two white buoys where the Chester River meets the Chesapeake Bay looks unremarkable.
But when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel Bay Commitment lowers a sonar device, a different picture emerges. There are oysters there - millions of them. And at month's end, oystermen who all but lost their livelihoods to overharvesting and disease will again have a crop to sell from the area known as Blunts Bar.
While Maryland's Department of Natural Resources is investigating whether to introduce a non-native species to the Chesapeake, scientists in Maryland and Virginia are striving to bring back a sustainable population of native oysters. Researchers are working to develop sanctuaries in which to put disease-free oysters and manage them as they grow.
Blunts Bar is one of three managed reserves that will open for harvest for the first time Oct. 30 under an innovative strategy in which watermen and scientists work together to grow oysters. Under a managed reserve system, watermen agree not to harvest the oysters for several years so scientists can monitor the ecological benefits. In exchange, state officials agree to open the bar periodically to oystering.
"This is a dynamic middle ground," said Richard Takacs, NOAA's mid-Atlantic restoration coordinator. "The watermen recognize they've got a stake in this. And this year, they'll have a chance to see that."
NOAA is one of many agencies working with the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a nonprofit formed a decade ago to try to bring back the bay's native oyster population, which has been all but wiped out by disease over the past several decades.
Other partners include watermen, industry representatives, state natural resources officials, and University of Maryland scientists, who are responsible for hatching and monitoring the oysters. Last year, the partnership planted 164 million oysters at 17 sites statewide.
On the nearly 200 acres of bottom called Blunts Bar, the partnership has planted about 70 million oysters since 2001 in four attempts. About half died the first year, and nearly 10 percent each year thereafter.
Those are far better survival rates than in some experiments in which nearly all the oysters died. Other efforts, such as the use of a New Zealand technique to grow oysters in mesh bags and put them in the bay, have shown disappointing results.
Signs of success
When Blunts Bar opens, watermen will be allowed to harvest up to a half-million oysters - about 1,200 bushels. Last year's harvest from the entire bay was only 20,000 bushels. The partnership plans to open other parts of the three bars when oysters reach 4 inches.
While the partners won't know for sure until Oct. 30 how well the oysters grew, many already consider the project a success. The oysters were allowed to grow one inch larger than market size to give the bay an extra year of their ecological benefits - filtering out pollutants and creating reefs that are habitat for other bay life.
Over the past year, watermen have guarded the bar from would-be rogue harvesters.
"It's not just a `come and get 'em for half a day and sell them,'" said Kennedy Paynter, the University of Maryland oyster biologist who's been monitoring the reserve bars. "It's really incorporating the watermen in a larger experiment."
For all their optimism, the partners kept their work quiet, worried that any announcement would raise false hope that the beleaguered bivalve was on the way back. "There's almost been a hesitation to announce this kind of success with what we're doing, maybe because we're fearful it could all go away," said Tilly Egge, the partnership's program administrator.
The managed reserves concept underscores a major lesson for researchers trying to bring back the native oyster: Whatever you do, you've got to do big.
"What we've learned over the last decade or so from doing restoration is that scale is a really big issue. We've got to do larger scales," said Jamie King, an oyster biologist with NOAA. "You can't just do one little postage stamp restoration in a sea of barren ground."
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, long known for planting oysters using little more than a dump truck of shells and a few volunteers, has also learned the merits of thinking bigger. Recently, the foundation spent more than $500,000 to plant 1.2 million oysters in sanctuaries in Virginia's Lynnhaven River along with government and citizens groups. Foundation officials say the river now has more oysters than any other Virginia tributary. Similarly, the foundation worked with Anne Arundel County waterman John Orme to grow hundreds of bags of oysters in the Rhode River using a 60-foot reef-building vessel.