On a narrow wooden pier jutting out into the Magothy River, Michelle Powell Cummins sifts through the gravelly silt at the bottom of a wooden tray like a prospector panning for gold.
But she's looking for oysters, not nuggets. Ms. Powell Cummins is one of Maryland's few oyster farmers. She doesn't expect to find gold in the Magothy. But she'd like to make a little money with her oyster patch.
In the tray, her oysters are almost microscopic, hard to see on the crushed shell on which they're "set," but there are thousands of them. Possibly more than all the mature oysters sent to market from Maryland waters last season, which was a sad enough 148,000 bushels (actually up a bit from previous years). A couple of hundred thousand or so teeny, tiny oysters inhabit the trays Ms. Powell Cummins is tending.
"See that really thin layer of growth there -- that's new," she says, displaying a chip of an oyster. "These guys have been in here three days. They'll stay here until they grade off on the quarter-inch mesh, then they'll go over in the pond on the South River.
"I want to try to have 500,000 in the water for next year," she says. "I have sales for 250,000, which I need to meet. I also need 200,000 for sale this year. I'd think these guys would be 1 inch by August."
But, so far, she's actually more of a nursery operator than a farmer, more environmentalist than aquaculturist.
"A lot of my market is 1- to 2-inch oysters for gardens and reef restoration," she says. "At this point, all my sales are going to that. If I keep 500,000 for next year, I should have enough for restaurant sales for next year.
"So this is kind of fun. I really enjoy these guys."
Ms. Powell Cummins scampers about the pier near Pasadena, tanned, lithe and a few months pregnant with her and husband Stephen's first child. She's 27 and a 1988 graduate of Swarthmore College in marine studies.
"I always had wanted to farm some bivalve," she says, " 'always' meaning since my sophomore year in college, when I realized oysters were it."
She worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod and the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomons Island, and did a couple of internships with oyster projects at the University of Washington.
They farm the Japanese oyster, Crassostrea gigas, on the Northwest coast and widely around the world, notably in England and France. The French are perhaps the world's greatest oyster eaters and the great French oysters like La Rochelle's fin de clair are now almost all farmed gigas.
The East Coast and Gulf Coast oyster is Crassostrea virginica, the most revered of which have been plump, stately and increasingly rare Chincoteagues. The alien gigas are barred from the bay.
After college, Ms. Powell Cummins wanted to go look at how they farm oysters in Europe. She's a pretty good sailor, so she got to Britain aboard U.S. Women's Challenge, the yacht entered, but unraced, in the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race.
She talked oyster culture with growers at Whitstable, a famous oyster town since Roman times, a place again where virtually all oysters are farm-grown.
"I actually worked as a consultant with this fishing company on the Isle of Wight, which had bought some oyster leases and didn't have an idea of what to do with them," she says. "I used that money to get down to France and Jersey and Guernsey to check out their systems. Then I came back here."
On the pier in the Magothy, her oyster aquaculture starts with a series of pumps and white plastic tubes watering a half-dozen sieve-like trays -- a "down-welling" system because the water comes in at the top and goes out at the bottom.
"See how meager and low-cost everything is," she says, laughing. "But it works."
Her oysters begin life as "spat" -- larvae she buys wherever she can legally. They "set" on minute pieces of shell and start growing into oysters. When they get to about a quarter-inch, she puts them into mesh plastic bags. Off the end of the pier, a few bags of oysters grow like well-fed gourmands.
Ms. Powell Cummins pulls up a bag and drops it on the pier.
"See these guys, growing in here?" she says. "They're all about 2-inch oysters. This is what provides the habitat. There's a few shrimp and things I see in here. And see all this algae growing on the bottom?
"But the biggest thing you're going to notice is all these littlguys right here and that's what everybody comes and feeds on. All those little shrimp. The arthropods and the isopods. That's what the ducks will come to feed on. The fish will come to feed on. The crabs will come to feed on."
She lifts the bag and the planks underneath are covered with translucent little beasties scurrying hither and yon, around and about.
"All I really see in here now is a good barnacle set. I'm sure there are some crabs and stuff," she says, tentatively. Then happily: "Here's a little crab, right here!"
The little fellow is about as big as a baby's toenail.
"There are about 600 oysters in here," she says. "I'm probably going to keep them. It's good to have a lot of brood stock."
A cool, soft spring rain falls as Ms. Powell Cummins works her oyster nursery. Behind her, a point of land rises from the Magothy as groomed and lovely as a rock island in a Zen pool. This landscape has been domesticated as long as people have worked the water.
Oysters can pump 60 gallons of water a day through their little tentacles. They digest algae and wrap the stuff they don't eat in neat little mucous bags called, splendidly, "pseudo-feces," which make a nice meal for all those other water-dwellers Ms. Powell Cummins' bags attract. In the 19th century, when maybe 40 to 70 billion oysters lined the Chesapeake Bay, they could filter the whole thing in three days.
Unkind modern times
But modern times have wreaked a kind of havoc on the bay. At the end of the 20th century, there are 99 percent fewer oysters in the bay than at the start. In the 1880s, watermen ripped nearly 15 million bushels a year from the Chesapeake, H. L. Mencken's famous "immense protein factory." He recalled that in his childhood hucksters went door to door selling shucked oysters out of huge cans for pennies.
Overfishing, pollution and parasitic diseases have decimated bay oysters. Last year's harvest, which some watermen and scientists found hopeful, was less than 10 percent of the 2 million bushels harvested only 15 years ago.
"So I try to emphasize the habitat value a little more, especially, to people who ask, 'Well, how many bags do I need to clear the water around my pier?' " Ms. Powell Cummins says. "And I'm like, 'Well, how much money do you have?'
"The bag of oysters they have may be filtering 10,000 gallons of water a day. That's a lot of water, so they're like 'Oh, it's gonna clear up.' But I'm like, 'Just think one minute how much water goes back and forth in front of your pier even on a small creek on a tidal flux.' "
A lot. Potentially millions of gallons, depending on where you are.
Ms. Powell Cummins thinks about a thousand people grow oysters off their piers in the Severn, South and Magothy rivers.
A bag of oysters costs about $60. And an oyster garden is relatively care-free. You only have to shake the bag every two weeks, basically, to keep it clean enough for water to flow lTC through. Make sure they don't freeze in the winter and transfer them to a sort of big shell-filled bakery tray when they get big enough.
"I know some people who give their oysters as much attention as they would their favorite primrose bed," Ms. Powell Cummins says.
"There's one woman that I just love and hear from once a year. She's been doing it since I started. She is absolutely meticulous. She jokes about naming them. But I think she did name some."
Most people do, in fact, tend their oysters like flowers to look at, not vegetables to eat. Ms. Powell Cummins guesses only one gardener in 30 eats her or his home-grown oysters, mostly because they're in waters from which the state recommends you shouldn't eat oysters.
She's currently a consultant for people restoring oyster reefs, which are basically a big shell pile, structurally arranged. The Severn River Association is seeding a reef, Living Classroom wants to set up a 60-acre reef, and the Magothy River Association a 1- to 2-acre reef. She has worked with oyster-growing programs at Gibson Island, Amberly and Severna Park.
"They're trying to improve the ecology of the rivers where they live," Ms. Powell Cummins says.
However, reef restoration and supplying gardeners won't support full-time, viable oyster aquaculture.
"But it was always a great idea, because there's this big grass-roots support for aquaculture as being good for the bay," she says. "I think some of that has to do with my activity. And it was fun. And I love doing that kind of stuff.
"It keeps me in the game and continuing to learn," she says. And she thinks she has generally covered expenses. "Although my accountant husband says we have put in rather more money than I thought."
Producing oysters for the market at a competitive price is tough, not the least because aquaculture is bound in a thick net of rules and regulations. Frank Wilde, the dean of Maryland oyster growers, predicts only a dim future for oyster farming in the bay.
Disease, lack of seed oysters, restrictive regulations, lack of interest on the part of investors all add up to zero, says Mr. Wilde, who spent 26 years trying to develop a fast-growing, disease-resistant oyster.
State officials gave him little encouragement. You can't get permission for anything, he says. For historic cultural and political reasons, regulations favor a diminishing number of watermen.
"Regulations that protect watermen are destroying the bay," he says, and recites a litany of ecological disasters.
But Ms. Powell Cummins has been able to sell her oysters, and in fairly exclusive markets. She hopes to do so again.
"So many restaurants are dying for good fresh bay oysters," she says. "I was selling Nora's in D.C. and the Baltimore Brewing Company, Fran O'Brien's in Annapolis, the Polo Grill bought some, Jeannier's and Faidley's in the Lexington Market."
And she does eat her own oysters.
"Oh, yeah!" she says. Hers are not so salty because they are "finished" in the low-salinity waters of the Choptank River.
"I like 'em when they're low in salt," she says. "But they're sweet. They're really sweet. And that's what I like. I like a sweet oyster."