Helping of oysters


Rain; heavy at times, with cool temperatures and wind out of the northeast. Perfect weather for planting oysters, says fisheries biologist Stanley C. Tomaszewski of the Department of Natural Resources. "If it's a sunny day, they dry out, and you lose some."

So Big Lou, a DNR tugboat, pushed an 80-foot barge loaded with a million or so juvenile oysters clinging to old shells through the inlet at Sandy Point State Park yesterday and turned north on the Chesapeake Bay, headed for a newly resurrected oyster bay off Dobbins Island near the mouth of the Magothy River. There, a crew of eight would slice open net bags and drop the shells overboard with assembly-line precision, hoping to jump-start a long-dead oyster bar as part of a bayside oyster restoration program.

The 4-acre bar off Dobbins Island is the first of four that DNR crews will plant this summer. DNR plans to drop 4 million to 5 million spat on this bar and a million each on bars in the Potomac and upper Patuxent rivers, said Tomaszewski, manager of the state's aquaculture center at Piney Point in St. Mary's County.

Oysters, which feed on the algae that block sunlight to essential underwater grasses and filter pollutants from the water, are at the heart of Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts. The bay agreement, signed last month by the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol M. Browner and the mayor of Washington, D.C., calls for increasing the bay's oyster population tenfold by 2010.

"Oysters can restore the bay better than we can," said Carolyn Watson, an assistant DNR secretary. "We can jump-start a bar with this brood stock and hope that it gets to the point that we put ourselves out of business."

Oysters were once so plentiful in the bay that the earliest European explorers warned of running their ships aground on reefs of shells.

Landings, once about 24 million bushels a year, have been ravaged by overharvesting and disease, falling to a low of 79,618 bushels in the 1993-1994 season. The figures have rebounded partly because of restoration. Maryland has appropriated $25 million for the project over 10 years.

Watson said the state uses that money to leverage more money from the federal government and organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The Army Corps of Engineers is also helping.

Maryland and Virginia have rebuilt oyster bars and reefs throughout the bay and tidal tributaries by planting up to 2 1/2 million bushels a year of empty shells on the bottom to provide places for spat - baby oysters - to attach themselves and by planting seed oysters in areas that need more.

In addition to places for spat to grow, the reefs and bars provide habitat for juvenile crabs and fin fish to hide from predators while they grow to maturity.

The oysters planted yesterday started life in a DNR hatchery on Deal Island and grew to where they could be replanted in the bay at Piney Point. They're from good stock, Tomaszewski said, oysters that have survived in the mouth of the Choptank River despite the oyster diseases there.

The Corps and DNR chose the 4 acres of bottom off Dobbins Island because it "had two important ingredients," said Chris Judy, head of DNR's shellfish division. "It has a three-dimensional contour and a good base of shell."

But the shells were buried in the bar's mud, which is 4 feet deep on the river bottom. So, the Corps of Engineers dredged up the shells to make it ready for the new oysters.

About 5 a.m. yesterday, a DNR crew began loading pallets of net bags of the shells that held the juvenile oysters; 38 pallets of 40 bags each with about 250 shells per bag and an average of two or three oysters per shell. By midmorning, the truck got to Sandy Point and the crew transferred the bags to the barge.

At last, Capt. Doug Scofield eased Big Lou's nose into the V-shaped slot on the barge and started through the inlet. In the open bay, the wind and rain picked up, and the barge pitched clumsily as spray flew over its square nose.

As the tug and barge pushed past Gibson Island toward the bar, marked by stakes with bright orange flags, the crew quickly set to work in pairs. One sliced open the bags and set them up where the other could grab them.

"We've had a lot of practice at this," Gene Ramsey said, grasping a bag at both ends, turning and, with an underhanded roll, emptying the shells into the water.

The barge that had taken nearly two hours to load was clear of oyster shells in less than an hour.

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