Meet Alina Siira: Coast Guard Reservist, Environmentalist, Oyster gardener

141018-G-PJ006-082Coast Guard photograph by Seaman Chiara Sinclair.

On a sunny, Saturday morning, Petty Officer 3rd Class Alina Siira peered over the side of a dock at the Coast Guard Surface Forces Logistics Center in Baltimore and carefully hoisted up a cage of oysters.

Siira did a visual inspection of the tiny oyster babies, known as spat, attached to old oyster shells inside the cage. After everything checked out, she submerged the cage once again in Arundel Cove.

Now, the electrician's mate with the all-reserve, Mobile Support Unit can add a new job title to her repertoire: CBF oyster gardener.

"It's very, very exciting," Siira said.

The little mollusks are part of efforts with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to help restore the local oyster population.

Oysters levels in the Bay are at a terrible low, Siira said.

141018-G-PJ006-061
Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Alina Siira, an electrician's mate, checks one of her two oyster cages at the Mobile Support Unit at Coast Guard Surface Forces Logistics Center, Baltimore, Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014. Siira placed two oyster cages at the SFLC as part of efforts with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to restore oyster levels in the local waterways. Coast Guard photograph by Seaman Chiara Sinclair.

"Being a part of this program, we're hopefully slowly going to restore it to higher levels," she said. "This is the first time this has been done in the Arundel Cove."

Harvests of native oysters in the Chesapeake Bay are one percent or less of historical levels, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The population has been impacted by factors including harvesting, disease, and changes in water quality, NOAA said.

Oysters are an important part of the ecosystem since they are filter feeders that clean the water and create healthier habitats for marine life, Siira said. One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.

The increased oyster population and healthier waterways benefit the Coast Guard and the entire community, she said.

Siira said she knew she wanted to get involved in the volunteer program, but without a dock of her own, she turned to her command.

The support was overwhelming, she said.

With the blessing of the Coast Guard, she put her first two oyster cages out this fall and doesn't plan on stopping there.

"I would love to have oyster cages lined all the way around this campus," she said.

The spat, which are smaller than a fingernail, grow within nine months and then get placed on a protected reef at Fort Carroll in the Patapsco River, south of Baltimore, which runs into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Maryland Department of the Environment warns against eating oysters grown on private piers due to the threat of contamination that could sicken a consumer.

Taking care of the oysters requires a commitment, but Siira said she is happy to do it. As a member of the local community, she takes great pride in being a part of the project and stops by at least once a week to tend to the babies.

When the oysters are feeding from April to November, CBF recommends a gardener shake or tumble them every few days. In the winter, a gardener should ensure ice and weather do not damage the cage.

Siira said each cage can grow about 500 oysters, so gardeners can make a "pretty big impact" in helping restore the population.

Success rate for oyster gardeners is about 90 percent, she said, since the oyster babies in the cage are protected from predators.

Siira is working to get the word out and would like to see more people involved in restoring the oyster population.

"My hope [is] if they live through this year, then I'm going to reach out to the surrounding bases and see if we can have individuals who want to take care of and have their own oyster cage," she said.

Siira said she is looking forward to June, and hopefully reporting back about the "the success of the Arundel Cove oyster babies."

--Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Lisa Ferdinando

Emmy Nicklin

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