When a neighbor urged Brenda L. Biles in the spring of 1992 to hang a bag of young oysters under her pier to filter the water, she thought, "Oh, my God, it's one more thing I have to baby-sit."
But that fall, encouraged by the modest growth of the oysters, Mrs. Biles suggested that the Amberley Community Association in Anne Arundel County start an oyster reef.
"The community loved the idea," she said.
The group voted to spend $500 to start a one-tenth acre reef at the juncture of Whitehall and Ridout creeks, west of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. There are plans to further expand the reef.
Mrs. Biles, now president of Amberley, said she realizes the small community reef is barely making a difference in the water quality of the creeks or in the Chesapeake Bay but she still sees a value.
"Even if it is psychological, it feels better knowing it's there," she said.
Amberley is part of a small but growing number of communities and organizations that are creating oyster reefs for ecological reasons.
The Severna Park Rotary Club, the Gibson Island Corp., Sherwood Forest and the Living Classroom Foundation of Baltimore all have similar projects.
A student group, the Interact club at Severna Park High School, plans to start a reef this fall.
Homeowners also have joined to go beyond cultivating oysters by the bag off individual piers.
More than 1,000 waterfront property owners have raised oysters in bags and trays under their piers, not for harvest, but for their ecological value, experts estimate.
Along the Magothy River alone, more than 400 piers have had oyster sites, said Edmund "Bud" Jenkins, vice president of Magothy River Association.
The association, which in 1993 started a 2,000-square-foot oyster sanctuary near Ulmsteads Point, is building an oyster nursery off Downs Park.
Sand-grain size young oysters will grow into two-inch oysters to be placed on the association's reef.
"The nursery program is part of the Magothy River Association's long-term river oyster restoration plan," said Michelle P. Cummins, an association member and consultant on similar projects.
Oysters, which once filled the Chesapeake Bay and many area rivers, filter the water by feeding on algae.
Fish and other aquatic life are attracted to the immediate area by a reef, and to a lesser extent a bag.
Though the contribution to the bay may be insignificant, the area around the reef benefits.
By developing reefs, organizations hope to contribute to the health of waterways and the bay.
"I think that every little bit helps," said Aime M. Scott, who will start 11th grade in the fall and is in charge of Interact's oyster project.
Thomas L. Burden, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, said the projects "have a very minor impact."
The trust has given about $100,000 in grants to communities and organizations for building reefs.
The real value of the projects, Mr. Burden said, lies in "calling attention to the quality of the water" and in educating people about the environment.
The economy of scale and the ability of an organization to get a grant are among the reasons groups are turning to reefs.
"It is more cost effective to do the bottom," said Christopher C. Judy, a state Department of Natural Resources manager for the shellfish program.
For the $70 or so it costs to establish a bag of a few hundred VTC oysters, a community could buy thousands of oysters.
It costs DNR about $2,000 or so an acre to put both down shell and spat.
Nevertheless, Mr. Judy said, communities would do well to start with bags, if for no other reason than to see if oysters can grow in their area, if crabs will eat the spat and if worms and disease will kill oysters.
The Department of Natural Resources reviews Chesapeake Bay Trust grant requests for shellfish reefs for suitability. Mr. Judy said the department prefers to see reef projects in waterways where oysters live because it indicates that the shellfish can survive there.