Homegrown Oysters, Homegrown Activists
Jim McVey grows two kinds of oysters by Michael W. Fincham
Jim McVey grows two kinds of oysters under his dock. In his left hand: a single triploid, an oyster invented to be sterile and fast-growing. In his right hand: a shell with a clump of natural diploid oysters that started as spat. The triploid will end up on a dinner table. The diploid oysters will end up on a nearby sanctuary. Credit: Michael W. Fincham.

AS HE WAS BUILDING A HOME along a creek in southern Maryland, Jim McVey decided to order 1,000 baby oysters from an out-of-state hatchery. After they arrived in the spring of 2006, he took his tiny, quarter-sized oysters and packed them in small mesh bags where they clinked together like dark, misshapen marbles. When he hung his bag of oysters under his dock along Hellen's Creek, a small offshoot of the Patuxent River, McVey became the first person on record to grow a new, genetically altered oyster in Maryland waters.

He was the first, but he was not alone for long. Later that year Len Zuza began growing the same new oyster along Saint John's Creek, another nearby offshoot of Maryland's Patuxent River. Both men were growing an oyster called a triploid, a sterile, faster growing oyster that can be harvested and eaten all year round. First invented in Maine over 30 years ago, triploids were designed to give oyster farmers a profitable new product.

To date, however, the early adopters of triploids in Maryland have mostly been oyster gardeners like McVey and Zuza, for whom triploids are only a sideline. Their primary mission is growing native, natural (diploid) oysters at their docks to help restore water quality in Chesapeake Bay. The oyster gardening movement — and it is a movement — began in creeks. In the early 1990s the Magothy River Association had creekside gardeners raising oysters to replant an old reef. By the mid-1990s, local environmentalist John Flood was plunking oysters on a reef in Harness Creek, not to grow and sell and eat them, but to put the filtering power of oysters back to work in his home waters.

By 1997, large organizations were joining up. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) began its own ambitious Oyster Gardening Program by hiring Michelle Cummins from the Magothy River Association. Another model, according to Bill Goldsborough of CBF, was the Tidewater Oyster Growers Association, a Virginia group that encourages amateur growers to raise oysters at their docks — not only for restoration, but also for food. In Maryland's programs, the focus for gardening has been restoration, with seed oysters usually provided by the Horn Point hatchery at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Gardeners could now get training, seed oysters, and the gear to grow them. Once their baby oysters hit their first birthday, they could turn them over to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation or to the Oyster Recovery Program. Both organizations focus their planting on large sanctuaries that once held natural oyster bars. "We want to plant oysters," says Goldsborough of CBF, "where there is documentation they will grow." Their goal is restoration of the Bay.

Homegrown activism is still alive and still kicking up new organizations, however, and some of these new arrivals are trying to refocus the movement back where it began — on creeks. Down on St. John's Creek, for example, Len Zuza started the Southern Maryland Oyster Culture Society (SMOCS), a "creekroots" organization that promotes a "small waters strategy" of using homegrown oysters to clean up local creeks and rivers. Zuza calls it community-based oyster gardening. "People are far more strongly motivated," says Zuza,"if their oysters are going to stay nearby rather than be released 15 miles away on a huge oyster reef." Instead of turning over their oysters for other people to plant elsewhere, these gardeners want to pick the creek, create their own sanctuary, and plant their own oysters.

Oyster activists seem to get heard. When the state's Department of Natural Resources joined the movement two years ago, launching their Marylanders Grow Oysters (MGO) program, they promised gardeners they would plant homegrown oysters in the nearest river. The MGO website warns, however, that creeks or coves "seldom have suitable bottom for planting oysters."

The warning seems to have been heard, if not always heeded along all the creeks where gardeners live. The movement's we'll-do-it-ourselves philosophy is still alive in places like Mill Creek, Saint Leonard's Creek, and Battle Creek, where Zuza and SMOCS have been putting down shell to create "suitable bottom" for oysters. It's also alive along Hellen's Creek where Jim McVey does his oyster gardening with the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA). After setting up a network of gardeners, CCA asked the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for help in putting shell down to create bottom for an oyster sanctuary just downstream from McVey's dock on Hellen's Creek.

CBF turned them down — but only after internal debate about their own policy of planting only on natural oyster bars. "We talked it over and talked it over," says Goldsborough. "They had their hearts set on that creek. [But] it would call into question our policy."

So the first Sunday in June, 2010, volunteers from CCA began spreading 300 bushels of oyster shells to prepare the creek bottom for oysters. During the summer they'll plant over half a million baby oysters raised by 250 volunteers, including oysters raised under docks in the home waters of Jim McVey.

Oysters in small creeks will be closely watched — and not just by the gardeners who planted them.

vol. 9, no. 2
CQ Archive
[Maryland Sea Grant] Maryland Sea Grant NOAA
Stay Connected
Support Maryland Sea Grant
Chesapeake Quarterly is published by Maryland Sea Grant | Privacy Policy | © 2024 Maryland Sea Grant