Oyster gardeners work to revive ailing Chesapeake Bay

Wed Aug 31, 2011 3:41pm EDT
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By Matthew A. Ward

NORFOLK, Va (Reuters) - After 10 years of cultivating oysters in the waters off the end of his backyard dock, Kendall Osborne has developed something of a salt thumb.

He began gardening oysters as a way of bonding with his two daughters and, like hundreds of other Virginians, to help bring the ailing Chesapeake Bay back to life and rid it of dead zones where no sea creatures can survive.

"It's fun to see them grow," said Osborne, whose Norfolk, Virginia, home sits on the shore of the Lafayette River. "When we get them they're very small, about half the size of your pinky fingernail. A year later, they're two, three and occasionally even four inches long."

Scientists estimate Chesapeake Bay's oyster population has plummeted to less than five percent of levels before European settlement, and oyster gardeners hope their effort to replenish the mollusks will help improve the environment in the bay.

Oysters form large reefs that provide a habitat for marine plants and animals. They feed by filtering microscopic plants from the water, improving water quality, and as adults can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day in optimum conditions.

"If you look at the time of first contact, when the original oyster population had been in place for hundreds of thousands of years, they were able to filter the entire Chesapeake Bay, which is a huge volume of water, in about three or four days," said Tanner Council, a coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which runs an oyster gardening program in Virginia.

"Now it takes the better part of a year."

Volunteer gardeners, of which there are an estimated 300 in Virginia, plant their baby oysters in the late summer and early fall. A year later the gardeners voyage out to sanctuary reefs where the mollusks are deposited.   Continued...

<p>Kendall Osborne deposits oysters he has grown at a reef on the Lafayette River in Norfolk, Virginia August 24, 2011. REUTERS/Matthew Ward</p>