As gulls and cormorants perched on the walls of Fort Carroll looked on, a crabbing boat stopped long enough to jettison 30 bushel baskets of very special oyster shells into the Patapsco River.
On the boat, a handful of Pasadena residents spent their Saturday afternoon planting young oysters in a reef, just as they might have been putting in a crop of tomatoes or zinnias.
"We call it Oysters Rock, because we live on Rock Creek," said Chris Wallis, 68, the day's volunteer director. He is a retired computer tech who once ran the mainframes at the old First National Bank. "I grew up on Bear Creek [in Baltimore County] and I love oysters, although I'd never eat one out of the Patapsco these days. Our goal is to increase awareness of cleaning up the bay and its tributaries. Oysters are great algae eaters."
He said that in September, about 75 of his fellow waterfront property owners with their own piers accepted metal cages of oyster shells dotted with minute specks called spat — tiny oysters that are just barely visible.
"We volunteered to become oyster gardeners and grow oysters at our docks," Wallis said. "The oysters are grown in cages from spat on shell provided by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources program called Maryland Grows Oysters."
Saturday's planting of 30 bushels of infant oysters was the first Marylanders Grow Oysters effort in the Patapsco River, Wallis said.
Earlier this year, Wallis and Department of Natural Resources staff member Chris Judy went by boat into the Patapsco and located an existing oyster reef off the west-facing walls of abandoned Fort Carroll, an island-like 19th-century stone fortification.
"I was amazed at the population who showed up today with the cages of growing oysters," Wallis said of his neighbors, who took the project seriously and allowed the oyster crop to spend the winter in the metal cages submerged off their piers and docks.
"The first time we tried it, it was a failure," said Wallis, recalling the fall of 2011, when Hurricane Irene and other storms flushed so much fresh water through the Susquehanna watershed that the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries became less salty — which was bad for the oysters. The first season's attempt at oyster gardening was a washout in Rock Creek.
He didn't give up, though, and the payoff came last winter. When the cages of shells and the baby oysters came up for inspection a few days ago, they were plump and full.
"They just about doubled in size," Wallis said.
Wallis said the oysters are not intended for harvest and that the cages carry warnings against eating them.
Wallis and his neighbors, who have formed the group Restore Rock Creek, held an event called Celebrate Rock Creek Day. They gathered at the Maryland Yacht Club and set sail.
Jason Krauch, who owns Pasadena Seafood, volunteered the use of his work boat. He was accompanied by his wife, Tanya Lynn, for whom the boat is named, and their 6-year-old daughter, Savanna.
"This year has been a good year for growing oysters throughout the bay, and on Rock Creek," said Wallis. "After four months, the Department of Natural Resources surveyed several cages at four different locations on Rock Creek, and in each case there were sometimes eight oysters growing on each shell. We were very excited to get that positive report card."