When Jack Smith, 79, of Galesville was a boy, there were five oyster houses in his hometown. His uncle drove a truck with solid rubber tires daily to Washington to deliver the mollusks caught in West River. Today, Smith tends an oyster garden, hoping that with his help and the help of his neighbors, oysters might take hold again in his hometown waters.
The rural Anne Arundel County communities of Galesville and Shady Side have joined together to develop an oyster sanctuary that organizers hope will bring together young and old, newcomers and natives, and improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
"Really, the purpose of the project is twofold: first to educate the citizens of the West River watershed about the river and then to get them involved in improving it," said Cel Petro, one of the volunteers from a coalition of the West River Improvement Association and the Shady Side Peninsula Association.
The two groups have received a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, with technical support from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Department of Natural Resources, to establish the Elmer Carroll Benning Oyster Sanctuary. Residents will grow oysters at their docks that will be transferred to the reef when they are mature.
Oysters once were prevalent in the river, yielding a harvest of 586,500 pounds of oyster meat in 1968. In 2001, the harvest was down to 192 pounds. The beds known as Three Sisters, Potato Hill and Collins Flat were ravaged by disease, as were many others in the bay.
Margaret Ann Gaug, a lifelong resident of Galesville and descendent of watermen, inherited her father's 5-acre lease of river bottom in the West River. Although the bed has been idle for many years, she continued to pay the taxes on it and kept the lease active. She donated 1 acre to the Oyster Project to establish the sanctuary that is named in her father's honor.
At the July 27 launch of the Oyster Project, known as POWeR (Project Oyster West River), more than 100 people came to the Galesville Memorial Hall to learn about oysters.
"What was remarkable was that people came and they stayed," said Petro. "On a summer Sunday afternoon."
The event featured displays about the historical importance of oysters to the river, the techniques of oyster gardening, and how oysters can substantively improve water quality.
"Kids these days know a lot about ecosystems and the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay," Petro said. "It was the grownups that were learning." By the day's end, 40 people had signed up to attend the oyster gardening workshop set for Sept. 13 at the Captain Salem Avery House in Shady Side.
Stephen Gauss, a retired astronomer who lives in Shady Side, volunteers extensively with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's oyster program and is involved with POWeR.
"This is an opportunity to effect the improvement of the bay from right in our own neighborhood," said Gauss. He and fellow scientist and volunteer Linda Andreasen spent hours studying the bottom of the 5-acre Benning lease to find just the right 100-foot by 200-foot space to dump the disease-free oyster shells that will form the substrate for the reef. With part of the grant money, the project purchased the shell, had it delivered and built the 6-inch-deep base for the beginnings of a habitat.
The group will purchase baby oysters, called "spat," from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and drop them onto the reef. Gauss said some of these oysters will survive but many will not.
"This is our way of depositing a lot of quantity onto the reef," he said.
The community oyster gardeners will be providing the quality. "The 40 people that signed up will provide the reef with somewhere around 40,000 healthy adult oysters next summer that they grew at their docks," Gauss said.
Organizers think there will be even more local growers attending the regularly held Chesapeake Bay Foundation workshops.
The three-hour workshops give would-be oyster gardeners all the supplies they need to start growing baby oysters. At the Sept. 13 workshop, participants will construct cages and learn to tend their gardens. The project is using cages rather than heavier floats so that children will be able handle them to do the maintenance required.
Smith has been growing oysters at his dock for the past five years, but this year he is more engaged than ever.
"I remember seeing the men harvest oysters from that very bar in the winter one year," he said. "It was so cold they had to cut a hole in the ice which was at least 8 inches thick. I am very excited to put my oysters back on that bottom."