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He's raising a raft of oysters

RIDGE - Some folks are ready to write off the Chesapeake Bay's once-fabled oyster, but not Richard Pelz.

At his Circle C Oyster Ranch on a postcard-pretty cove in St. Mary's County, the stout, bearded one-time farmer from Ohio has tens of thousands of the bay's beleaguered shellfish corralled in white floating rafts tethered to his dock. A hand-lettered sign offers them for $6 a dozen.

Fighting through a thicket of regulatory red tape, Pelz says, he has figured out how to beat the diseases that have nearly wiped out the bay's wild oysters, revive Maryland's moribund oyster industry and clean up the bay in the process - if only the government will let him.

"If they turned us loose, I think we could clean up the bay in 10 years," he asserts.

Many experts think he's wildly optimistic, but they acknowledge that Pelz is doing what nature no longer can.

His oysters grow faster than those left on the bottom, reaching raw-bar size in as little as nine months - before the slow-acting diseases can take their toll.

"Moving oysters off the bottom allows them to grow faster," says Donald Webster, an extension agent with the Maryland Sea Grant program who has worked with aquaculturists. Up in the water, he explains, shellfish can find more of the algae that nourish them.

There's no secret to Pelz's success. Oyster farms like his are common in Asia and Europe and on the West Coast of this country. But aquaculture is alien here in Maryland, where for centuries watermen foraged freely for what God provides.

Not so long ago, they harvested millions of bushels a year. But the Chesapeake's bounty has been crippled by overharvesting and the recent appearance of parasitic diseases dermo and MSX, which kill oysters before they're large enough to eat.

Now, with Maryland expecting a record-low harvest of only 50,000 bushels this year - and Virginia less than half that - watermen and seafood interests in both states want to introduce an Asian oyster that seems capable of fighting off the diseases in the wild.

Last week, Virginia officials approved a trial cultivation of 1 million hatchery-produced imports, although the oysters are supposed to be neutered to prevent them from reproducing and spreading.

But Pelz thinks his "floating oyster reefs" should get their chance before everyone gives up on the Eastern oyster and releases the replacement from China, with unknown ecological consequences.

"We could out-produce the wild catch in the bay easily if we were allowed to do it," he argues.

Started young

Pelz, 53, says he has been fascinated with oysters since his youth in Ohio, when he read an article about aquaculture's potential for feeding the world.

After studying marine biology at several colleges and making a stab at land-based farming, he moved to Maryland 15 years ago. He found land for his dream on St. Jerome Creek, in sight of the Point No Point lighthouse, where the water is usually too fresh for MSX to threaten the harvest.

But Pelz says his dream has been hampered by regulators he has sparred with for nearly a decade to get the 26 licenses, permits and approvals he needs to raise oysters in floating rafts and sell them.

His application for a 10-acre stretch of creek along his property was slashed by two-thirds, he says. Most of the water he was left with is virtually unusable because it's whipped by wind and currents.

More recently, when he and a few associates got permits to grow oysters in nearby creeks and coves, the state Department of the Environment stepped in after the floats were in place, declared the waters polluted and prohibited shellfish harvesting.

"Nobody's really given aquaculture a fair shake in the state," complains Paul Flynn, one of Pelz's two employees, who started as an intern at Circle C seven years ago while he was a biology student at nearby St. Mary's College.

State and federal officials acknowledge that Pelz has had to run a regulatory gantlet but say some of it was unavoidable. Raising oysters commercially on floats is still rare in Maryland, they note, and shellfish present particular health questions. Oysters and clams have been known to pick up disease-causing bacteria from waters tainted with human waste.

"We know that oysters aren't a risk-free food," says Kathy Brohawn, who monitors water quality in shellfishing areas for the state environmental agency. "That's why all these regulations are in place, to minimize that risk so they're safe to eat."

Watermen worry

Watermen also tend to resist aquaculture, fearing it will deprive them of spots where they can still catch wild oysters. And neighbors object to the floats, which interfere with boating and spoil their scenic views.

"I've had neighbors complain that ... 'I bought waterfront and want to look at the water,'" says Richard Bohn, aquaculture specialist for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Pelz, who is not afraid of expressing his opinion, also acknowledges that he might have contributed to delays by challenging regulators.

"I've been told that I'm my own worst enemy," he says, adding later, "I get pretty intense about oysters."

But Pelz has persisted. He says he sells $40,000 worth of oysters annually from his 200-foot dock and supplies about a dozen restaurants in St. Mary's County and in the Washington area.

Last year, he got a friendly legislator to push a bill through the General Assembly that provides a $500 tax credit for homeowners who buy equipment to raise oysters. That boosted sales of his trademark oyster floats, he says.

Now he is backing another bill (HB 735) to let waterfront landowners in St. Mary's and Calvert counties raise oysters within 15 feet of their docks without permits. A hearing on the bill is scheduled today.

He also hopes to cash in on the oyster's ecological value as a natural filter. Scientists note that the Chesapeake was much cleaner when oysters were abundant and removed far more of the sediment and nutrients that foul the water today.

Pelz has patented his oyster floats - made of white PVC plumbing pipe - as "biological nutrient control" systems. He hopes to sell the idea to farmers or others interested in finding a relatively cheap way to cure the bay's water-quality woes.

Many scientists doubt that Pelz or anyone can put enough oysters in floats to clean up North America's largest estuary.

"It just doesn't seem to me to be feasible, given the depleted nature of the habitat, that you're going to make a dent in the whole bay," says Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Oysters could clean up some tidal creeks and tributaries, Boesch says, but a bigger question is whether Pelz or anyone can make a living raising them under current conditions.

"Previous efforts at off-bottom aquaculture have generally not been financially successful," he notes.

The plastic mesh bags that hold the oysters become coated with barnacles and other slimy bay growth, cutting off the flow of water and food. The cost of cleaning them by hand has sunk other efforts.

Pelz acknowledges that his wife's job as a psychologist has supported the couple to date. But he says his floats aren't that much trouble to tend, and he expects oyster growing to blossom under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has pledged to help the state's farmers.

"I'm a farmer," he says. "I just farm a different area of the state."

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