Kathy Bosin - February 2011


So you Want to Grow Oysters?
Kathy Bosin


You’ve heard about it, your friends are doing it, you live on the water – why not grow oysters? You know that oysters filter water and help clean the Bay. There’s not one reason why you shouldn’t try it. In fact, it’s pretty easy. Here are some basics to get you started.
The first thing you need to do is decide what your motivation is? Do you want to grow oysters for contribution to a local sanctuary reef, or are you thinking of Oysters Rockefeller? Your choice makes a difference in the form of oyster seed you select. Oysters intended for restoration projects should take the form of spat-on-shell (clumps of oysters attached to one another);,while clutchless seed (single, individual oysters) are best suited for personal use.
If you want to participate in oyster restoration, there are a lot of ways you can join in local efforts. From the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to Governor O’Malley’s Marylanders Grow Oysters Program and the Choptank River/Eastern Bay Conservancy, local environmental organizations have programs designed to help you help the Bay. You won’t need to do this alone.
Next, you need to evaluate the conditions of your growing area. Do you have a dock? What kind of water are you on? The wave action and depth of your water will govern what type of container is suitable for your oyster garden.
There are two basic types of containers: floating (AKA floats) and submerged (AKA cages). If you’re on a deep, protected cove in a Talbot County creek, you’ll have different options than if you live on Tilghman Island, facing the open Chesapeake Bay. In rough open water, cages are the best choice. Hanging by lines from your pier, submerged cages insulate your oysters from storms by positioning your oysters under the waves.
If you are in a protected location, oyster floats might be a better choice than cages. Floats can range from the basic “Taylor” float, constructed from PVC pipes that surround hanging bags of oysters, to Johnny Oyster Seed’s “Revolution.” The “Revolution” is a state-of-the-art system that uses the power of the tide to turn a drum, reducing your maintenance to almost nothing. For homeowners who have physical limitations or who travel a lot, the “Revolution” can be the simplest way to grow oysters with the least maintenance. You can make the basic Taylor float yourself, using directions found on the Choptank River/Eastern Bay Conservancy website.
As an alternative and/or follow-up to wither floats or cages, you might simply place your baby oysters directly on-bottom, but mortality will be much higher than either cage-grown or float-grown oysters. Be sure to first establish a hard substrate under your dock to receive your spat-on-shell. If you don’t create a hard surface, any oysters that you place on a muddy bottom will sink and die quickly.
Once you’ve grown your oysters – what’s next? If you’re part of one of the local environmental group projects, they’ll help you by picking up your oysters, or leading you to a drop-off place and time where you and other citizens can drop year-old oysters off for placement on sanctuary reefs.
If not, you can join the Eastern Shore Oyster Growers, a new citizen-grower group. They can help you volunteer to help move oysters to protect reefs in a creek near you.
The Marylanders Grow Oysters Program is locally coordinated by Environmental Concern in St. Michaels and supports volunteers in growing oysters on LaTrappe Creek, San Domingo Creek and the Tred Avon and Miles rivers. They will place small cages in the water column beside your dock. Your job is to keep the oysters alive during the first, most vulnerable year of their life. You’ll go out weekly and pull the cage up and down, “swishing” water through the oysters, reducing fouling growth and ensuring access to oxygen and algae.
After a year, your oysters will be placed onto a sanctuary reef. You’ll clean off your cages and start over again with another batch of spat-on-shell. The spat-on-shell are young oysters clustered onto clean shell, mimicking the clustering that they do in nature, banding together to protect against predators.
If you’re thinking of eating your oysters, you’ll need to consider a few items. Keep in mind that the Maryland Department of the Environment does not recommend that you eat oysters grown at your dock. Their preference is that you eat oysters harvested far from the pollution sources near the shore. The MDE does monitor water quality, but you’ll need to do some homework to identify and understand recent water quality tests. Of course, if you cook your oysters, you can be sure that they’ll be safe from any diseases.
Another consequence of growing and eating your own oysters is the downside to your local economy. Local watermen are having a rough enough go at it. Consider how your choice to buy oysters from your local watermen helps to keep the local oyster market moving and your local economy strong.
If that’s not enough to sway you, look at both Johnny Oyster Seed and Circle C for systems that can help you grow individual (clutchless) oysters using techniques that create a rounder, easier-to-shuck shell.
For more information:

Environmental Concern & Marylanders Grow Oysters

Johnny Oyster Seed Co.

Eastern Shore Oyster Growers 443-205-2828

Choptank River/Eastern Bay Conservancy

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Circle C Oyster Ranch

Kathy Bosin is a founding member of the Eastern Shore Oyster Growers. She lives in Talbot County.