Wrangling Oysters Out of Trouble
by M.L. Faunce with contributions
from Oyster gardener April Doss

 Vol. 11, No. 2

January 9-15, 2003

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Richard Pelz, left in overalls, is leading the effort to grow oysters at his Circle C Oyster Ranch in St. Mary’s County. With the help of Paul Flynn, right, they grow oysters fast enough to outrace the Bay’s oyster diseases.
Down on Circle C Ranch in St. Mary’s County, Richard Pelz thinks he’s got a pearl of an idea for bringing back both the Bay and oysters you can eat.

Time was when crushed oyster-shell roads sparkled in the sunlight leading to packing houses along both shores and many tributaries of Chesapeake Bay. Now, wild oysters are nearly gone from river bottoms and Bay reefs, and with them much of the Bay’s oyster industry.

At the end of December, 2002, Maryland’s harvest was a record low 28,000 bushels, putting us in line for the worst harvest in history when the total is figured in March.

“Microscopic organisms have East Coast oyster production under their thumbs,” says Chris Judy, Maryland Department of Natural Resource’s man on oysters. The microscopic organisms of which he speaks cause the devastating diseases MSX and dermo.

It’s so bad out there that some — scientists and watermen alike — have given up on our Bay’s poor old Eastern oyster.

There’s even a substitute waiting in the wings. Carassostrea ariakensis, a non-native Asian oyster species that’s won hearts in Virginia, seems to have all the good of its native American cousin with none of the bad [see “A New Oyster for This Old Bay,” Vol. X, No. 3, January 17, 2002].

But not so fast. Not everybody’s ready to throw in the towel on Carassostrea virginica.

Watermen, scientists, state legislators, nonprofit organizations and universities have just the first draft of a Baywide plan to restore our native oyster. Throughout Chesapeake Country, people are studying the plan as you read this story, to get their comments back to the Chesapeake Bay Program by January 15.

There’s hope in the water as well as on paper.

The Oyster Alliance — a joint outreach of the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership — is working with Bay dwellers to nurture spat for sanctuary reefs where oysters would grow not to be harvested but to revitalize the Bay. That Alliance boasts 55 million oysters planted in the Bay and its tributaries in 2001 — with higher figures likely for last year.

And, down in St. Mary’s County, Richard Pelz thinks he’s got a pearl of an idea for bringing back both the Bay and oysters you can eat. He calls it oyster ranching.

Pelz’s Pearl
A fisheries biologist from Ohio’s gently rolling farmland, the bearded, ruddy-faced Pelz dreamed of fertile fields of oysters.

He searched the East Coast before settling on St. Jerome Creek, a five-fingered creek on the Bay-side of the St. Mary’s peninsula above Point Lookout. There, on what he calls the “best location in the nation for an oyster aquaculture activity,” Pelz founded Circle C Oyster Rancher Association, which is Maryland’s leading — some say its only — commercial oyster-culture facility.

Why is this spot so promising? In the wild, oysters grow faster in salty water, but that’s where disease and predators lurk. This creek is halfway up the Bay, where salinity is lower and the deadly oyster disease MSX can’t thrive. Here “the only predator is the blue crab,” says Paul Flynn, number-two man in a three-person team that operates Circle C.

So far so good, but Pelz has more plans to speed his oysters along.

Wild oysters grow in reefs, living mountains that rise as new generations attach to the shells of their ancestors. Pelz farms his oysters on Floating Oyster Reefs three-by-10-foot trademarked floats of white PVC tubing. Each reef is seeded with some 1,200 inch-long oysters, lashed to the reefs in mesh sacks suspended inches below the surface of the creek.

Water-column aquaculture, as Pelz’s method is known, places oysters in a zone of food and oxygen where they can feast on the fresh algae that grow there naturally. Managed in this environment, Pelz says he’s grown oysters from larvae to four inches in only nine months. By 18 months, they reach a jumbo six inches.

Secured to the 200-foot dock where he farms, each reef occupies only about 30 square feet of water space. On one-tenth of an acre of water surface, Circle C is farming a quarter-million oysters.

Aquaculture Rides Again
At Circle C, Pelz has refitted an old idea for our times.

Propagating and cultivating aquatic animals in a controlled environment dates as far back as 2000bc in China. Closer to home, Maryland was among the first states to recognize the value of leased oyster grounds.

As early as 1830, Merrill Leffler writes In Oyster Farming vs. Oyster Hunting: A Century of Conflict, the Maryland General Assembly allowed citizens one acre of leased bottom ground for planting and growing oysters. But why take the trouble of farming when wild oysters seemed to be infinite? Leased bottom ground was used mostly for holding a catch of wild oysters until the market price was highest.

After all these years, oyster farming is still seeking its way in Chesapeake Country.

Raising oysters on leased underwater bottoms has never produced more than two percent of Maryland’s oyster harvest, according to the Comprehensive Oyster Management Plan. Water-column aquaculture, Pelz’s method, is still experimental. Most water-column aquaculturists are oyster gardeners, who grow a small crop to be seeded in sanctuaries.

Their successes are considerable.

Consider, for example, what’s been achieved by Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s oyster gardening program.

“Initially, we thought we could recruit about 100 people per year,” to be oyster gardeners, says Stephanie Reynolds, self-described “oyster wrangler” for the Foundation in Maryland. “In the past two years, it’s been over 200 per year.”

In Maryland alone, the Foundation trained 223 oyster gardening households in 2000. That’s not counting school teachers who are gardening oysters with their students. Reynolds reports that citizens and students together planted 882,940 oysters on sanctuary reefs in Maryland waters in 2001. Since 1996, Maryland gardeners have raised half a million adult oysters for sanctuaries.

But back in the sanctuaries, those carefully nurtured oysters are vulnerable to the diseases MSX and dermo that, over the last 15 years, have killed oysters faster than nature or humankind can grow them.

But not faster, says Pelz, than he can grow them.

Will It Work?
Talk to different experts, and you’ll hear different opinions about the likelihood of Richard Pelz’s dream growing into a pearl.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture, according to Flynn, is “100 percent behind us.”

Maryland’s director of aquaculture development and seafood marketing, Noreen Eberly, does not go so far. She does say her department “supports the development of commercial oyster growing.” Such activities, Eberly notes, “grow the industry as a whole and get people interested in the industry. They also mean we’ll have more oysters in the Bay for both its health and for ecological benefits and to bring to market.”

Marine biologist Don Webster of the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program is more specifically enthusiastic. Developments in aquaculture make ours “one of the most exciting times to be here in the last half century,” he says.

Webster envisions oyster farms as safe haven from a disease that has devastated the oyster industry in Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Farmed oysters, he hopes, would indeed grow fast enough to reach harvest before microscopic oyster predators kill them.

Others are not so optimistic.

“It is true, oysters in water grow faster than on bottom where they grow in the wild,” allows DNR’s Judy. “To the degree oysters grow faster and escape disease, water column aquaculture can be helpful,” he says. “But I won’t say it’s the savior of the oyster industry.”

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Breeding for Pearls
When you’re talking pearls, you need more than a good bed. You’ve got to have good breeding.

“There’s 40 years of selective breeding behind Circle C Lineback oyster,” says Flynn, who came to Circle C as an intern from nearby St. Mary’s College.

To perfect its strain of the Chesapeake Bay’s native Eastern oyster, Circle C cultivates pedigreed oysters from genetic lines selected for growth rate, disease resistance, cup shape and thin shell. The deep cup and extra thin shell means a higher meat-to-shell ratio.

“Our oysters average about 32 percent more meat than the same size wild oyster,” Flynn boasts.

Pelz and Flynn didn’t get such a fine oyster all on their own. The Circle C Lineback is bred from the Chesapeake Supreme, a strain of Eastern oyster developed by Frank ‘Buddy’ Wilde, who traces his roots back four generations on the Shady Side peninsula.

A pioneer aquaculturist of an earlier age, Wilde perfected his oyster back in the 1960s.

“Larvae is gregarious,” Wilde told Bay Weekly. “It needs to be together. But when larvae gets together on a clump of shell, it doesn’t give you a very good oyster.”

So Wilde developed a way to get larvae to set one by one. When his oysters had grown to seed size, about as big as a quarter, he transferred them to floats: “simple trays six square feet that were easy to handle and that would hold a bushel of market size oysters.”

His little hatchery in his Bayfront yard at Felicity Cove was a wooden structure 14 by 16 feet that looked “more like a farm tool shack.” There, he produced more seed oysters than he could ever sell, so he sold to other growers.

Wilde also marketed Chesapeake Supremes himself, selling them to the seafood markets at Annapolis City Dock, to some local restaurants and to neighborhood customers in Shady Side. “Now they had the flavor,” he said.

Wilde closed down his hatchery many years ago, so Circle C has to breed its oysters as well as farm them.

Maryland’s three state-owned hatcheries — DNR runs hatcheries at Piney Point in St. Mary’s County and Deal Island on the Eastern Shore; University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science runs another hatchery on Horn Point in Cambridge — can’t sell to commercial operations. The only private hatchery in the Bay is Middle Peninsula Aquaculture in Virginia. So to get their eggs, Circle C selects 60 or 70 of its best brood stock — “the largest, best cup-shaped oyster to form better meat,” Flynn says — and sends them off to Virginia’s Middle Peninsula.

By heating the water in its tanks, the hatchery provokes the oysters to spawn, producing eggs and sperm that quickly develop into larvae. The larvae swim free for about three weeks before they are shipped back to Circle C as transparent “eyed larvae” already forming miniature shells. The first shipments of six to seven million larvae arrive around the first of July.

“Ten million larva can fit in your hand,” says Flynn, opening his own ample fist to show that the larvae shipments arriving by UPS from Middle Peninsula Aquaculture are smaller than a golf ball once they’re unpacked.
Paul Flynn with the floating reefs on which Circle C’s oysters grow.

On the Farm
On the Circle C dock on St. Jerome Creek, each crop begins with millions of well-bred larvae.

“Twenty percent is a good transition figure from larvae to seed oysters,” says Pelz, explaining that by planting time, he’s down to some 400,000 seed oysters.

Outfitted in apron and big rubber gloves, Pelz works over waist-high tanks, called downwellers and upwellers, to nurture oyster seed through the delicate nursery stage.

The tiny larvae’s first stop is the downweller. Take away the fancy name and you get an open plastic bucket, the sort that holds drywall compound, with fine mesh screening stretched across the top. Just as low-tech is the fine layer of crushed oyster shell that are the larvae’s first bed. Pelz pulverizes the shell in his electric coffee grinder.

On the screen, larvae are poured onto shell, and creek water is piped through the downweller. At that stage, Pelz explains, “three larvae can swim side by side through one hole in a window screen.”

Many screen-sized changes later, the inch-long survivors are moved into roomy mesh bags, where they grow to market size in Pelz’s Floating Reefs.

Eighteen or so months from set, some 125,000 oysters are harvested.

Circle C’s floating oyster reefs on St. Jerome Creek.
From Farm to Market
On the farm, oysters are harvested year round, but demand is greatest in winter. Most days this season, Circle C brings in its harvest.

Pelz and Flynn raise the Floating Reefs with a pulley, cut open the mesh bags and grade their crop. Oysters are separated into three sizes: cocktail, two and a half to three inches; standard, three to three and a half inches; and large, four and over.

Drive down Route 235 in St. Mary’s County to Airdale Road, and you can buy Circle Cs on the dock where they grew, for $6 a dozen. Shop at Woodburn’s Market in Solomons, and you’ll pay $10 a dozen for Circle Cs. Order Circle Cs on the half shell at McCormick & Schmick — an upscale West Coast seafood restaurant with a Bethesda location — and you’ll pay far more. Circle Cs are on the menu there and at a dozen more fancy restaurants, from Leonardtown to D.C.

Other Circle C customers are environmentalists and entrepreneurs who want to grow their own oysters. To encourage oyster-culture, the Maryland General Assembly last year passed legislation — sponsored by delegates George Owings, from Southern Maryland, and John Hurson — granting an income tax credit for 100 percent of the purchase price of aquaculture oyster floats for personal, non-commercial use, up to a maximum credit of $500.

“We sold over 100 floats since the legislation, as opposed to 13 last year,” says Pelz.

Commercial oyster ranchers are buying floats, too, as well as oysters to stock them. Two St. Mary’s County ranchers each have 80 to 100 floats in the water. When their oysters reach market size — an average four to six inches — in six months, they sell them back to Circle C as a cash crop.

Saving the Bay
As proof of his claim to grow oysters faster than disease can kill them, Pelz has a harvest of 125,000 oysters this season.

But he says he can do more. Pelz says he can indeed save the Bay by saving its native oyster.

The secret, he says, is his floating reef, under patent as the Biological Nutrient Control System.

To understand how salvation might work, you have to imagine how bivalves and Bay work together. When the Bay was healthy, so were oysters, for each satisfied the other’s needs. The Bay brought the oysters sunlight and nutrients; the oysters filtered the Bay, keeping it clean. Only when human acts broke that system down did disease run wild.

Put enough oysters back in the Bay, Pelz says, and the balance will be restored. As farmed oysters grow, they’ll filter the water from the top down, stimulating photosynthesis and creating oxygen to restore the symbiosis of bivalve and Bay.

“The native oysters grow fine, they just need a chance,” says Pelz.

He says each three-inch oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day, so each of Circle C’s five-bag rafts contain about a thousand oysters, which filter about 50,000 gallons of water a day. Multiply that action by each new reef planted by oyster entrepreneurs, and everybody would be happy. The Bay would be clean. Oysters would be fat. So would oyster farmers, if Pelz’s estimate that one-tenth of an acre farmed actively could yield an annual $50,000 crop of oysters.

That’s why Richard Pelz thinks his “market-based solution to pollution control” is a pearl of an idea.

Let’s hope he’s right.

About the Author
Native Washingtonian M.L. Faunce visited Chesapeake Country as a child but detoured to Alaska before settling here in the mid-1990s. She’s still got traveling in her blood, as well as cold weather, so she keeps a house in Maine as well as in Churchton. The former Congressional staffer has written for Bay Weekly since 1995.

Chesapeake Bay Program’s Comprehensive Oyster Management Plan

Ready for a little more light reading on the oyster?

Released in early November was the first “Baywide document ever produced to address habitat restoration and management issues of the native oyster.”

The 80-page document was produced by the Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional partnership that has led and directed the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay since 1983. It is the work of the Bay Program’s Aquaculture Advisory Committee of watermen, scientists, state legislators, nonprofit organizations and universities.

The plan’s purpose is to develop and implement “a strategic effort to rebuild and manage native oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay.” Specifically, the goal is a tenfold increase by 2010.

To that purpose, the plan considers seven main strategies: managing around harvest; establishing sanctuaries; rebuilding habitat; increasing hatchery production; managing harvest; improving coordination among the oyster partners; and developing a data base to track oyster restoration projects.

You can read the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Comprehensive Oyster Management Plan on-line at www.chesapeakebay.net/cop.htm.

Hurry, and your comments can shape the final plan. You’ve got till January 15.

Copyright 2003
Bay Weekly