Q. Can you give me a quick overview of how the oyster gardening program works?
A. Oysters are the Chesapeake Bay's best natural filters. They also provide essential habitat for fish and other Bay creatures. Unfortunately, though, today's oyster population is a fraction of its original level. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's oyster gardening program gives people the opportunity to help bring back this vital species by growing oysters alongside their docks. Once grown, the adult oysters are returned to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for planting on sanctuary reefs.
New gardeners are required to attend a training session, from which you will leave with everything you need to grow oysters, including cages and about 1,000 to 2,000 spat (baby oysters). You then tend these oysters for about nine months. Keeping oysters in cages allows them maximum exposure to oxygen and plankton, which means they will grow faster than they would in their natural habitat on the Bay bottom. These big, nine-month-old oysters have a greater chance of surviving once they are planted on sanctuary reefs than they would if we simply took them right from the hatchery and planted them.
After nine months of growing your oysters, you return them to CBF for planting on sanctuary oyster reefs. Ideally, you will return them to CBF in late spring/early summer. In late summer/early fall you can pick up your new spat and continue growing oysters for the next year.
Q. What type of dock and water conditions do I need to grow oysters?
A. You must have access to water with a salinity of at least three parts-per-thousand year round for your oysters to thrive. Most places in the Bay meet this requirement, but there are 'boundaries' beyond which you can not grow them.
The 'boundaries' are as follows.
In Maryland, you cannot grow oysters
- north of the Patapsco River;
- above Round Bay on the Severn River (that is, northwest of, or upstream of, Round Bay);
- above Brown's Creek on the Chester River;
- above the Route 301 Bridge on the Potomac River.
In Virginia, you cannot grow oysters
- west of the Rt. 360 Bridge in Tappahannock;
- west of West Point on the York River;
- west of Williamsburg on the James River;
- south of the High Rise Bridge on the Southern Branch Elizabeth River;
- east of the Twin Bridges on Eastern Branch Elizabeth River;
- south of Virginia Beach Blvd on Eastern Branch Lynnhaven River;
- and south of Laskin Road on Linkhorn Bay.
Your site must also have a minimum water depth of one foot, even during extreme conditions. This is because oysters will die if they become smothered in silt or freeze out of the water (they will not die if they freeze in the water). You can tie your cages to a dock, pier, bulkhead or pilings. Oysters can be grown at a marina, community dock, vacation home, friend's house, etc., on the Chesapeake as long as you make sure you tend them regularly. This includes keeping an eye on them all winter long.
Q. How much time can I expect to spend tending my oysters, and what other commitments are involved?
A. Oyster cages need to be kept clean. When the weather is warm (May through September), you can expect to clean your oysters at least once every two weeks. Whenever oysters are feeding (about April through November), you should shake or tumble them every few days to dislodge any sediment and pseudofeces. This takes only a few minutes. During the winter months, you should keep an eye on your cage to make sure ice flows and severe weather does not damage it. And... you must bring back your oysters! CBF will set dates and locations where you can bring in your old oysters and pick up new oyster spat for the next year. We want to make sure your adult oysters are among those living, filtering, and reproducing on sanctuary oyster reefs, so please bring them back to us.
Q. Where will my oysters end up once I return them to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation?
A. CBF will plant your oysters on sanctuary reefs in the Chesapeake Bay. We have to be very careful about moving oysters around the Bay, because moving them can spread oyster diseases. We generally put oysters onto reefs on or near the river in which they are grown. Oysters can be moved from fresher water to saltier water without risk of spreading disease—they can not be moved from saltier water to fresher water.
Q. Can I eat the oysters I grow?
A. No. These oysters are for restoration purposes only. If you would like to grow oysters for consumption you can contact the Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association in Virginia. In Maryland, check the Maryland Oyster Aquaculture History and Policy page on the Sea Grant website. Additionally, the Maryland Department of the Environment recommends against eating oysters grown from private piers for health reasons. CBF suggests all oyster gardeners follow this recommendation.