CAMBRIDGE – At a little-known spot near the Choptank River on a spring morning, four watermen and two environmentalists stopped their boat and began to dredge for what they expected would be a bounty of oysters.
Such hope would be dangerously optimistic in most of the Chesapeake, where oysters have fallen to 1 percent of their natural population. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources estimated this year’s catch at an abysmal 15,000 to 18,000 bushels, shattering the then-record low of 53,000 bushels last year.
But this group was headed to Bolingbroke Sands, an oyster reserve created by scientists and watermen to give oysters a fighting chance against the disease and pollution that have ravaged them.
“It’s a unique group,” said Larry Simns of the unusual alliance of watermen, scientists, government officials and others in the Oyster Recovery Partnership. “It’s a kind of an effort where everybody works together.”
The partnership works, said Executive Director Charlie Frentz, because, “We’ve all got the same bottom line: Bring back the health of the bay.”
Bolingbroke is one of five reserves built by the partnership, which has planted spat — or very young oysters — for 10 years throughout the bay. Some of the spat goes randomly into the bay, some into closed sanctuaries for study.
But the reserves, started three years ago, are different because watermen and scientists work together in the cultivation process.
The reserves try to mimic what some scientists call the “perfect storm” of salinity and water quality oysters need to thrive: Salty water helps oyster fertility but also spreads disease, and vice versa.
After a long search to find spots that met those salinity requirements, the bay floor still had to be cleared of diseased oyster shell and replaced with clean shell to keep parasites like MSX and Dermo from invading the reserves.
That was just part of the plan: The partnership also needed help from the watermen, who were generally wary of the scientific community. Not only would watermen play a crucial role in the preparation and upkeep of the reserves, but they had to agree not to harvest the oysters until they reached an optimal size of about 4 inches, or 1.5 inches above market size.
But watermen were at the end of their ropes. Every year yielded a worse harvest and it became obvious that nature could not restore the oysters alone, said Simns, the president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.
So they put their skepticism aside and joined the partnership, often getting paid for work such as monitoring the growing spat or cleaning up the sites.
Simns, an initial skeptic, said the partnership has been invaluable to stabilizing the oyster population. It has even helped give watermen — who generally distrust armchair environmentalists — power over their futures.
“We’re doing it the way the watermen want to do it,” Simns said.
And that way seems to be working, said Tilly Egge, a partnership administrator.
“They (watermen) know so much and we recognize that and use it to our advantage. We’d be foolish not to get them involved,” Egge said as Simns steered their boat toward Bolingbroke, one of the first reserves.
Watermen and scientists have monitored the oysters’ progress monthly. The reserves showed promise last year, and this trip on a recent spring morning would reveal if they survived another.
Simns sat silently at the wheel, consulting a monitor that flashed fluorescent greens and reds to indicate if oysters were below. Two other watermen waited on the deck. When the boat stopped, they anchored it and immediately threw their oyster dredge into the water.
In a minute, they dragged the dredge up, arms straining with the load. But when they emptied the dredge into bushels, they realized quickly that these oysters were too small to be the ones they were looking for. Must be from a batch planted in 2002, they said.
Egge and Frentz noted the size — more than 2 inches. Not bad for spat planted two years ago, they said.
They moved on, looking for the 2001 batch. After some quick maneuvering, the boat stopped and the watermen threw the dredge back into the water, straining again as they reeled in another hefty load.
“That never happens,” Simns said, as the full lick, or dredge, came into view.
He said it usually takes many more dredges to fill a bushel from the bay, where only one oyster grows per square meter these days. But Bolingbroke is more like a natural oyster bar, where 1,000 oysters can grow per square meter.
The watermen picked through the catch, tossing smaller oysters back and dumping larger ones into bushels. One man reached into a bushel and removed a clump of oysters, holding it up like a trophy.
“There’s 15 oysters on one shell,” said Ben Parks, another waterman, who was as surprised as the rest of the group that stood somewhat dumbstruck nearby.
Egge took out her ruler and began calling out the shell sizes: “Three (inches). Three. Under. Three. They’re all about three.”
“This is exactly what we want,” Frentz said, nodding.
Egge finished measuring the oysters and sampled the salinity of the reserve water. And they were done. The oysters would be taken to a lab for further testing, but everyone seemed satisfied that the morning’s mission was complete.
“It’s a good experiment,” Simns said. “And it looks like the experiment’s working.”
Watermen will make trips like this through next year. If the Bolingbroke oysters keep up the progress, it and two other reserves will open for harvest next season. And the smaller oysters found in the first dredge should be ready for harvest a year after that.
The goal, Egge said, is to open at least one reserve each year, rotating among reserves so that the others have time to regenerate. If it works as planned, officials say one reserve bar could ultimately produce more oysters than the entire bay yielded this year.
In the late 1880s, the Chesapeake provided 20 percent of all American fishing industry jobs, but this year only 280 commercial fishermen bothered to pay the extra license fee to harvest oysters in Maryland. The partnership is trying to bring those numbers back up.
Simns does not think he will ever see the oysters return to the numbers of their glory days.
“Even with all that effort we’ve put in, all those oysters, it can’t take the place of Mother Nature,” he said.
But the reserves do offer hope.
“Right now it’s a wait-and-see attitude,” Simns said.
-30- CNS 04-23-04