In a parking lot in Shady Side, an effort to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay starts on dry land, with a mountain of oyster shells, a network of wire racks and bins, and a shovel.
In 80-degree heat on a sunny Friday at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland Oyster Restoration Center, a small crew of volunteers scoop shells onto suspended racks, shake the racks to filter out shell fragments and debris, then dump the remaining shells — soon to be hosts for new oysters — into larger bins.
When filled, each bin weighs a ton.
Over the course of the morning, about 12 to 16 bins will be filled, with plenty of brow-wiping, sweating and water breaks.
“It’s strenuous, dusty, hot,” said Karl Willey, the center’s program manager. “We encourage people to give us feedback — does this kind of torture appeal to you?”
The “shell shaking” events aid the center’s mission to clean, sort, seed and plant about 30 million oysters this year.
Oysters are a pivotal component of bay restoration. Not only do they filter water — an adult oyster can clean about 50 gallons a day — but they also support a healthy habitat for other aquatic life.
A combination of education and environmental activism motivated Rebecca Anderson, 30, to grab a shovel and volunteer.
“We teach environmental responsibility and the importance of taking care of the bay,” said Anderson, a kindergarten teacher at Odenton Elementary School. “It’s important to practice what we teach.”
She learned about the volunteer opportunity through an email circulated among schools. The Oyster Restoration Center hosts “shell shaking” events several times a month as the program ramps up its seeding schedule; four dates are planned in August. All ages can participate, but those under 18 must be accompanied by a parent.
“It’s taxing, but it’s good,” said Bill Barniea, 68, of Annapolis.
Barniea has lived in Annapolis 29 years, and says his children grew up on the Chesapeake. Now retired, he volunteers with the bay foundation and the nearby Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. He’s previously helped plant bay grasses, another important component of restoration efforts, but decided to try shoveling shells as well.
“Anything I can do to help keep the bay clean is worth the effort,” he said.
That’s music to the ears of Willey, who considers such events a “stepping stone for activism.” He said volunteers — particularly young people — genuinely get exciting about hands-on projects benefiting the bay, and that often leads to other forms of activism, from writing letters to elected officials to participation in larger projects.
“I think what people come away with is a feeling of ownership of the bay,” he said.
Restoration programs have seen some success in recent years. Scientists say the latest edition of an annual bay “report card” indicates a solid trend of improved water quality and overall health.
But efforts have also experienced changing economics. Willey said the center’s oyster program used to be able to get shells through the bay foundation for little or nothing — they were cheap and readily available.
In recent years, however, the advent of successful aquaculture business and more robust seeding programs have created a cottage industry for shell vendors. Last year the Oyster Restoration Center spent about $23,000 to buy shells from a Virginia source, Willey said, at a cost of about $5 a bushel.
Today, purchased shells account for more than 80 percent of what the program uses — the remaining shells come from donations; recycled from restaurants and other sources. Willey said the bay foundation is working to grow those sources, reaching out to restaurants, caterers, consumers and even organizations that host oyster roasts.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources notes that individuals and companies can get a state tax break for donated shells, also $5 a bushel. Last year the Oyster Recovery Partnership collected 33,000 bushels from 340 restaurants and 60 public drop-off sites throughout the mid-Atlantic.
Advocates say that’s a better outcome than having shells end up in landfills.
“We need that sector of recycled shells to grow,” Willey said.
Shells that come to Shady Side, whether donated or purchased, are cleaned, then sorted by the volunteers. Shaking them in the wire racks ensures that the shells used are big enough to be a successful host.
Once filled, the wire bins are lifted by crane into large tanks. Those tanks are then flooded with water, and after a few days oyster larvae from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Oyster Hatchery is introduced. Over the course of several more days the larvae attach to the shells, becoming spat.
The fledgling oysters are then loaded onto a ship and taken to a sanctuary area on the Little Choptank River. After the hours of shoveling and days of seeding, the process of pouring the oysters into the bay takes roughly 45 minutes.
The volunteers embrace their role in that process.
“It’s nice to get out, use your hands and get a little dirty,” said Sydney Godbey, 22, of Waldorf. Godbey, who majored in environmental studies at Ursinus College near Philadelphia, said projects such as shell shaking help people feel a sense of pride in the bay’s improving health.
“That’s what I love about it,” she said. “You can get everyone involved, and then they come away saying ‘I contributed.’”
Katie Thuman, a 20-year-old intern at the center, said handling the volume of shells needed to hit the 30 million goal this year “would just be impossible” without the volunteers’ help.
Thuman grew up in Annapolis, and as a student at St. Mary’s High School took part in environmental projects through the bay foundation. She’s now a rising senior at the University of Rhode Island studying environmental science and management, and has come to appreciate the partnerships needed to help the bay survive and thrive.
“It is a lot of hard work,” she said, “but so much fun and so rewarding.”
Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Oyster Shell Shaking days are scheduled for 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays, Aug. 10, 17, 24 and 31, at the Oyster Restoration Center at 4800 Atwell Road, Shady Side. The activity is not recommended for individuals with a bad back or other health issues. Water will be provided. Children under 18 must be accompanied by an adult. Registration is required at http://www.cbf.org/events/maryland/shell-shaking-events.html.