Patuxent's Disappearing Oysters

story by Carol Glover
photos by Ray Glover

The way it was:

The fading rays of the sun settle on the 50 to 100 boats tied up in Solomons Harbor. Working the oyster bars of the Patuxent are oystermen young and old, from river and Bay. Walking from boat to boat seems possible, it's so crowded on the river, and each boat is bringing in its legal limit of 40 bushels a day.

The way it is:

The fading rays of the sun settle on Solomons Harbor. The waves catch the light, but the oyster boats are here no more.


Where Have All the Oysters Gone?

Mike Previti, below, measures an oyster.

"It's been six years since we've shucked oysters from the Patuxent," mourns Norman Dorrell, owner of Warren Denton Seafood on Broomes Island. "I'm getting plenty of oysters from Deale and Shady Side, and maybe in three years time they'll come from the St. Mary's River. But they're not coming from here."

George Abbe has also seen the change. In his 30 years on the Patuxent River, a major fishery has dwindled and died.

"Native Eastern oysters used to be an important fishery here in the Patuxent," said Abbe, oyster researcher from the Academy of Natural Sciences in St. Leonard. The oyster's disappearance is bad news for more than economic reasons. "From a commercial standpoint as well as being a filter feeder cleaning the water, the oyster is important to this river," the scientist explained.

Overfishing has taken its toll. Patuxent oysters, like their cousins throughout the Bay, have been harvested to the point of extinction. They've been assaulted by pollution as more and more humans come to live in Chesapeake Country.

As if that weren't enough, survivors have been ravaged by two diseases, MSX and dermo. Salt-loving MSX has now receded to lower portions of the Bay, but more tolerant dermo ranges throughout the river and as far north as Rock Hall, above Annapolis, in Bay waters, continuing its devastation.

Into the late '60s, 600 to 800 bushels of local oysters from nearby beds would be unloaded on the docks of Shorters in Benedict in an afternoon. Now, the yearly take from the entire Patuxent doesn't match that count.

Charlie Steinfeld, fifth grader at Hollywood Elementary and one of the citizen sleuths investigating dwindling oysters, explained the problem this way: "The oysters die because they stay in one place. They can't move around."


Bringing Oysters Back

Erin Brewer and Sam Pratt measure oysters,below.

Everybody would like to bring the oysters back, but nobody knows for certain how to reverse the loss.

Still, lots of people are trying. For one, Maryland Department of Natural Resources has turned an old eel hatchery in the lower Patuxent into an oyster hatchery. Working with local watermen, DNR sets imported Western oysters in protected areas on the Patuxent in hopes that an imported breed will resist dermo.

For another, oysters for planting throughout the Bay are grown from seed at Horn Point, Deal Island and Piney Point by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

On the river where the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia has set up its estuarine shop, researchers have for three decades made a science of studying the Patuxent oyster.

They already know that dermo has moved north, from the full salt Gulf of Mexico into the partially salty waters of Chesapeake Bay and tributaries like the Patuxent River. Oysters draw in the little dermo protozoa as they feed. In the oyster's digestive tract, the one-celled pests multiply, stunting growth by reducing the oyster's ability to store fat. Eventually, dermo-infected oysters starve to death. Humans are apparently unaffected.

But a whole lot more is still to be learned.

Will it work to return oysters to the river by reseeding young oysters? Will the spat survive, growing to three-inch marketable adults? Will they reproduce in enough numbers to bring oystering back to the river? Where are the best places to seed the Patuxent?

Investigating these questions are Academy super sleuths, oyster researchers George Abbe and Brian Albright.


Super Sleuths

Master's degree in hand, George Abbe arrived at the temporary laboratory of the Academy of Natural Sciences straight from the University of Delaware. The year was 1967, and the young scientist was founder Ruth Patrick's first assistant at her Benedict Lab.

"I'll put in a few years," he remembers thinking. Thirty-one years later, Abbe is still studying crabs and oysters in the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. He finally got a proper office in 1994, when the lab moved across river from Benedict to St. Leonard Creek, where it shares space with Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum.

Abbe majored in fin fish in graduate school, but he loves oysters - both to study and to eat. Good thing. He adopted the oyster study project three decades ago, and he's been at it ever since. First hired to study the effects of the Chalk Point Power Plant on the upper river oyster beds, he's also looked at the effects of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant on the Chesapeake Bay.

"I'm like the kids we take out to study the river, doing my own thing, having a lot of fun," said the senior scientist. "When you pull a dredge or pots up, you never know what you're going to see. Everything that comes up is new and exciting to them and the same to me, a discovery."

As he talks, George Abbe radiates fun and good humor. An outdoorsman, he explains oyster life with practical as well as book knowledge, but in an easy-going, easily understood style. Ordinary people, nonscientists, learn from him and are not intimidated out of asking questions.

Abbe's partner, Brian Albright, a graduate of St. Mary's College, joined the lab a decade ago. Tall, slim and young, he said, "I would have liked the opportunities in school that kids have today. We take people of all ages out on our research vessel. Those 40 and older are not uncomfortable if you bring up trash as you're dredging. On the other hand, because of education, middle school students immediately begin to put bottles and cans into containers so they can be recycled. They've got a positive attitude toward recycling and are aware of the environment.

"As this oyster project goes on," he added, "people will become aware of conditions. If they're interested in oysters in the Patuxent, as soon as they know about them, they make conditions better - or at least they don't make it worse."


Pursuing the Villain

Rebecca Pratt records the oysters' data, at right.

In 1995, Abbe and Albright decided they'd have to tackle dermo if they wanted oysters back on the Patuxent. They started with dredged oysters first.

"In drought, when the river's concentration of salt is high, dermo spreads," Abbe said, explaining the science behind the study. "But even in periods of heavy rainfall, dermo is still found in great quantity throughout the Patuxent River. We want to know why."

If they could find a place where oysters seem to thrive but dermo doesn't, maybe spat could be set there to begin the oysters' return.

Short on funding and staff, the two scientists put out three oyster trays, one at Benedict, one at Drum Point and one at Patterson Park, their home base. Over their lunch hour, they checked the trays to see how their oysters were growing.


Citizen Sleuths Lend Many Hands

Abbe and Albright soon found they simply didn't have enough hands. So they called in help: everyday people like you.

Reaching out into the community, "we got 40 people interested in taking part," said Shannon Briscoe Campbell, the Academy's educational director. Volunteers had to be willing to commit a year to the investigation. They also had to have - or borrow - a dock on the river.

Albright and Abbe chose 22 docks close to natural oyster beds to study how saltiness affects dermo. They've picked sites that range from very salty, in Solomons, to less salty, near Benedict.

They've been at it for two months now, but without much result. In winter, oysters and dermo don't do much growing. In a month or two as the water warms, they'll both begin to blossom.

Throughout the coming year, five groups of citizen sleuths, observing, measuring and recording data, as part of this experiment, will share what they discover in New Bay Times.

They are:

At Site 3: Mike Previti, marine surveyor, mans his dock on Town Creek near Solomons at the mouth of the Patuxent. The water has higher salinity here at the entrance to the Bay than farther up the river toward Benedict. His oysters come from the Town Creek Oyster Bar.

At Site 10: Russ Millar, retired, and Mike Reese, night shift worker for Bell Atlantic, share scientific duties on Sandra Van Heerden's dock next door to the Sotterly Mansion. Their oysters were dredged from Neal Bar.

At Site 18: Betty Brady, teacher at Hollywood Elementary School and long-time environmental advocate, and her fourth and fifth grade students, study two sites on the St. Mary's side of the river. We'll follow the results from her Trent Hall site, on a farm south of Benedict owned by Dr. Henry Virts, Maryland's secretary of agriculture. These oysters come from Broad Neck. Young oyster sleuths Sam Pratt, Rebecca Pratt, Erin Brewer, teacher Betty Brady and Charlie Steinfeld, at left.

At Site 15: Ryan Briscoe, 16 and her assistant and father Tommy Briscoe, are studying what Albright and Abbe think are seeded oysters not native to the Patuxent. Uniform in size, these oysters are from Broomes Island Bar.

At Site 21: Grant Moulton, 11, won the grand prize at Plum Point Middle School Science Fair for his oyster project. He's monitoring the oysters moved from Dr. James Dudley's leased bar to his dock in Calvert County near the Benedict Bridge. Dudley is a University of Maryland professor emeritus.


Detectives on the Water

A wire tray filled with 100 oysters - they are borrowed from a natural oyster bed in the Patuxent - is attached to a dock near the oyster bed. At the end of every month, Patuxent citizen sleuths equipped with calipers and recording sheets measure the growth of the 100 oysters, count how many are still alive, fill out data sheets and mail them back to the Academy.

On 1998's first observation period, January's last days brought blistering cold, high water, muddy oysters and frosted fingers and toes. All five groups braved the weather to observe and record.

Superbowl Sunday found Grant Moulton on a blustery dock 80 feet into the river. "I'm a doer. I like being on the water and working with animals," the sixth-grade science wiz told us.

Abbe is especially happy to have kids as part of his project. "Kids are our future," he said. "A generation ago, we didn't have the opportunity to learn all these things. We waited until grad school to do some of the things these kids are doing. They see how things are done over and over to create a data base, seeing how science evolves. My satisfaction comes from seeing their enthusiasm."

Jan. 29­Partners Russ Millar and Mike Reese are studying oysters they caught themselves when Albright and Abbe took them out on the Academy's research vessel, the R/V Leidy, to dredge an oyster bar near Sotterly. From their catch, they kept 100 oysters to fill their tray.

"I love oysters. If they come back they'll clean the rivers, and fish will come back, I'm a fisherman," said Millar as he hauled in the heavy tray. "This is a way for an individual to help out."

With the mucky tray on the dock, Millar measures and Reese records. "If we can get the oysters to come back, we can do anything," says he. "Last month, a bald eagle sitting in a dead tree watched us. Maybe the water quality is improving."

Jan. 30­Betty Brady's group of students change every month. January's helpers are fourth grader Erin Brewer; fifth graders Rebecca Pratt and Charlie Steinfeld; and home-schooled Sam Pratt. All are huddled in their warm jackets, wearing gloves and boots.

Tramping through the muddy, wet fields, they carry a clipboard and all their equipment. The wind is bone-chilling; the sun disappears, but the kids are determined. Everybody hauls on the rope to raise the plastic-coated metal tray and its 100 oysters.

Using plastic gloves, Brady and three students measure each oyster, calling out the figures to recorder Rebecca Pratt. Farm dogs are running, trying to lure the kids to play.

It gets colder, but Brady keeps the kids on task.

But even when they think they've reached the end, too many oysters are left. They must be recounted. Wet and cold, the kids quickly get to work again, with Sam Pratt writing the sizes down. No way are they leaving without doing it right.

Brady will take the results back to her classroom. The kids will order the oyster sizes, find the average, the mean, the median. "I believe in empowering kids by having them do something real. This is what it's like to be a scientist working in the field," she said, her face red with cold and her fingers nipped.

Jan. 31­Ryan Briscoe and her dad, Tommy, pick a perfect day to study their oysters. It's warm and sunny, a great day to be down near the water. On a dock just north of Broomes Island, they haul in their tray.

"Oysters are an integral part of the area. We need to learn as much as we can about them and keep them around here," said 16-year-old Ryan, bending over to unhook the tray's top. "I hope the study will figure out how to save them, how we could co-exist."

Her dad chimes in: "I want to see what the reason is for oysters dying. I think a large oyster population would clean up the river." Then Ryan, who likes getting messy and playing with the oysters and her dad, who likes fooling on the water, get to work on their tray.

Feb.1­"I tried this project by myself before," explained Mike Previti. "In three years, I've put 200 bushels of shell down near my dock. Then I bought 30 bushels of oysters at retail and dumped them in. They're not dying, but they're not propagating.

"Through study we might actually see some good survival rates. Then maybe we can salt our waterfronts with oysters in a grass roots movement."

So far, the oysters - measuring from one and three-quarters to five inches and averaging about four inches - are doing well.


Will the Mystery Be Solved?

Super sleuths George Abbe and Brian Albright handle an oyster dredge, above.

December of 1998, the last sample will be taken. The trays will move indoors. By then, scientists Abbe and Albright will have a year's statistics on growth and mortality.

In the lab, working with forceps and scalpels, they'll take tissue samples for culture. From each tray, a couple dozen oysters will be cut into slices thinner than paper. The thin slices will incubate in broth for about a week, growing plump and easier to see. The scientists then slide the stained oyster tissue under a microscope to count the dermo cells.

Will what they see answer their questions? Will they discover why dermo selects some oysters and ignores others? Will they save the oysters of Patuxent River and eventually the Bay?

We know that not all mysteries are solved. Only time will tell.

"My hope is that it's not too late," citizen-scientist Mike Previti said. "Maybe through study, the oysters can come back."

Oyster development from egg, at top, to swimming Trochophore with just-forming shell, third from bottom, to attached spat, at left.

Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia

Mission: "to expand knowledge of nature through discovery and inspire stewardship of the environment."

Yes, you read that right. The Academy of Natural Sciences' Estuarine Research Center on the Patuxent River at Jefferson Patterson Park is part of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

The private, non-profit Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, founded in 1812, is the oldest natural history institution in the Western Hemisphere. One of the sponsors of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Academy counted Benjamin Franklin as a member, with Charles Darwin holding corresponding membership.

The research institution has over 200 million specimens used in the investigation of today's natural sciences issues. The Academy also houses a sights-and-sounds nature museum, educational center and library with 200,000 volumes published between 1527 and the present.

Over 200,000 visitors a year are drawn to its landmark building.


The Academy of Natural Sciences' Estuarine Research Center

The Academy's Estuarine Research Center was founded as a temporary field laboratory by Dr. Ruth Patrick in 1967. One of the country's leading experts on the biological effects of water pollution, Dr. Patrick was named by President Clinton as winner of the 1996 National Medal of Science Award, the nation's highest scientific achievement.

Still active after six decades with the Academy, Dr. Patrick can be found testifying on environmental legislation, teaching stream monitoring to volunteer groups and writing to complete her six volumes on United States rivers.

Back in 1967 with a contract from PEPCO, she set up shop in tents in Benedict, on the Patuxent River in Charles County, to study the effects of the Chalk Point Power Plant on the environment.

On October 10, 1994, the Research Center took a long-term lease of ten acres at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard. The 22,500 square-foot, state-of-the-art building on the banks of the Patuxent River was paid for entirely by private funds.

Under the leadership of director James Sanders, 35 full-time research scientists and technicians investigate the effect of human activities on coastal systems, informing and helping government, educational and private organizations to resolve conflicts involving water resources.

Academy staff host tours and educational programs, partnering with area school systems as well as educational institutions as far away as Michigan State University. Students from Calvert County's Northern High School and Southern Middle School are taking part in oyster disease studies and an oyster aquaculture project. The research vessel R/V Leidy is used in many of its projects and programs.

For people of all ages, The Academy offers programs, from scholarly lectures to out and active field trips.


To learn more: 410/586-9700. Or e-mail Director of Education Shannon Briscoe Campbell at [email protected] or Development Director Julie Hatch at [email protected]

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VolumeVI Number 8
February 26-March 4, 1998
New Bay Times

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