The following first appeared in the Daily Press.
On a breezy spring day, Claire Neubert hauled a wire cage full of oysters onto her dock on Elizabeth Lake at the top of the Hampton River. This miniature oyster reef was full of life. Barnacles sprouted from shells. Little fish squirmed among the oysters. Tiny crabs crawled into the crevices.
Neubert used a garden hose to spray mud off the clusters of growing shells, ensuring the oysters can continue filtering river water. After completing the weekly ritual of cleaning off her brood, she lowered the cage into the water with a splash. "Back in they go, to grow, grow, grow," Neubert said.
A local oyster gardener, Neubert raised these oysters from the time they were speck-sized babies, called spat. "I come out here on the dock and lose myself in the world of these oysters. Each one of them is a little bit different, kind of like a snowflake," she said.
Less than a year ago, Neubert picked up these oysters at a Chesapeake Bay Foundation seminar in Hampton. Once full grown they will be planted on a reef in Elizabeth Lake to restore the wild population in her backyard.
Oysters in Virginia have been decimated by disease and pollution but are slowly staging a comeback, thanks in part to restoration efforts. Oyster gardening gives people the opportunity to play a part in bringing back this beloved bivalve. "When you grow oysters, you feel good. Sure, you're doing something for the water and wildlife, but it also just makes me happy," Neubert said. "You don't need to be a millionaire to be a philanthropist. You can raise oysters to give back."
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation holds seminars on the Peninsula each June to teach new growers the ropes. There each gardener receives two small wire cages about the size of a shoe box to hang in the water off a dock or bulkhead. One is filled with spat about the size of your pinky nail. These will outgrow their cage after a few months, and gardeners eventually split their brood into the second cage.
Over time, the oyster-filled cages become homes to all sorts of critters, recreating the habitat offered by wild oyster reefs. The crevices between the shells are hiding spots for many small creatures. American eels, shrimp, toadfish, and even the occasional seahorse make themselves at home
Baby blue crabs are often curious, entering when they can still slip between the cage's wires. After a few molts, the blue crabs grow too large to exit the cage and look at the oysters as a buffet. Gardeners remove these as soon as possible before they make a meal of too many of their oysters.
As they mature the oysters spawn, increasing the local population. After a year, gardeners part with their adult oysters, which will be planted in sanctuary reefs off-limits to harvest. At the same time, gardeners receive a new set of baby oysters to repeat the cycle.
Neubert's oysters eventually will be planted on a reef just a stone's throw from her home. Last year she worked together with neighbors and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to establish the first sanctuary reef on the Hampton River. In total, 6,000 oysters have been planted on the reef, many of them grown by local oyster gardeners. Students at Hampton City Schools also raise and plant oysters on the reef with the help of Laurie Sorabella of Oyster Reef Keepers of Virginia.
While many waterfront homeowners hang cages off their own docks, people who don't live on the water can still take part. There are several public docks available locally for gardeners, including at Salt Ponds Marina in Hampton and on the observation piers at Buckroe Beach. The Hampton Waterways Restoration Project also helps people tend to public oyster gardens at Dandy Haven Marina and Sunset Marina.
Those interested in participating can visit one of several oyster gardening seminars this June. There will be one in Newport News on Thursday, June 22, from 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. and one in Hampton on Tuesday, June 27, from 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. Another seminar will take place in Deltaville on Saturday, June 17, from 9 a.m. - 11 a.m. New oyster gardeners must register ahead of time at www.cbf.org/vaoystergardening.
—Heather North, Virginia Oyster Restoration Specialist