Baltimore's harbor may be too funky for swimming or fishing, but maybe a little gardening can help.
Students from two city schools and some adult volunteers gathered at the National Aquarium Tuesday to "plant" some oysters in the Inner Harbor - not for eating but to try to improve the health of the ailing water body.
"This is the first time anyone has tried planting this number of oysters in the Inner Harbor," said Adam Lindquist, coordinator of the Healthy Harbor campaign, an ambitious initiative aimed at making the Northwest and Middle branches of the Patapsco River swimmable and fishable by 2020.
It's not the first oyster "garden" started in the harbor, but it's a step up from the small classroom projects performed to date. The 10 cages of baby oysters put in the dark water by the USS Torsk submarine today are the first wave of what is expected to be about 37,000 bivalves planted in five spots around the harbor this fall.
They're to be tended through the fall and winter by volunteers from several businesses that are members of the Waterfront Partnership, a sponsor of the Healthy Harbor campaign and the oyster gardening effort. The partnership teamed up with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has been coordinating oyster gardening elsewhere around the bay and furnished the oysters, cages and technical know-how for this project.
"Businesses have always been very supportive of the Healthy Harbor initiative," Lindquist said. "They've been asking us for opportunities to do more than go out one time a year and plant trees around the harbor."
Youngsters from the Green School, an elementary in Northeast Baltimore, attended the kickoff to explain how oysters help clean the water and support fish and other aquatic life. Fifth grader Ellie Cohen said she and her classmates had raised oysters in the harbor at the Living Classroom Foundation in Fells Point and took field trips to learn how the bivalves help the bay by filtering water.
"We had to dissect them in class," she said, adding that after that experience she's lost all interest in ever eating one.
Older students from Digital Harbor High School helped the adult volunteers assemble the wire cages in which the baby oysters are to be raised. One of those on hand to try her hand at gardening was Rachel Duncan, who works nearby at the Constellation Energy offices on Pratt Street.
"This is my first exposure to oysters besides eating them,'' said Duncan, who's originally from Austin, Tex. "I learned a lot from the kids."
Other businesses whose employees volunteered included Brown Advisory, Legg Mason and T. Rowe Price. The adult volunteers will be expected to go out every month week and clean the cages off. After nine months, the cages will be pulled up one last time and the bivalves transferred to an underwater oyster sanctuary by Fort Carroll in the mouth of the Patapsco River.
The first oyster cages were placed just a short distance from a batch of floating wetlands the Waterfront Partnership also had built and placed.
"This is just like the floating wetlands," Lindquist said. "It's a great way to engage people and the public about the value of the harbor and the ecosystem that is there if you just give it a chance."
Just as with the wetland floats, Lindquist said he expected the oyster cages will attract fish and other aquatic creatures and help soak up some of the nutrients in the harbor water that contribute to its warm-weather algae blooms. But he said he and other leaders of the cleanup effort were under no illusions about the impact of such demonstrations on the harbor, one of the most polluted spots in the entire bay.
"The bottom line is no amount of floating wetlands and no amount of oyster cages is going to make our harbor swimmable," he said. "The ultimate solution," he said, requires dealing with polluted runoff from city and suburban streets and parking lots, cleaning up the trash in the water and fixing the region's leaky sewage system.