Searching for oyster reefs

…….on the Miles River and Harris Creek with scientists from the DNR – Maryland State Department of Natural Resources. The goal – identify sanctuary bottom for Marylanders Grow Oysters Program (MGO) participants’ year-old oysters on both tributaries.  

The first afternoon was a sunny, warm day with Chris Judy and Robert Bussell from DNR, Jessica Lister from Environmental Concern and Bill Wolinski from Talbot County Public Works. We met in Newcomb and took off from Oak Creek, out to the Miles River and up toward St. Michaels. Chris, DNR’s Shellfish Restoration Program Director, had charts with oyster reef locations marked, but wanted to use a pole to check out those locations in person – “always check it out yourself, never blindly trust the computers….” The DNR does have access to many new technologies that make this process easier – from sonar scans to satellite views, videotapes from underwater divers, etc. But last week, we went out to look firsthand at the sanctuary bottom and choose locations for this year’s MGO reefs. I was invited along (thanks, Jessica!) as a MGO program volunteer, with a goal of learning more about oyster sanctuaries and how it all works.

Our method was super low-tech – a twenty-foot aluminum “sounding” pole, pieces of swim noodle cut and labeled with 50 ft of line and pieces of chain for anchor – total cost – maybe 25 bucks. Using the GPS (Chris’s personal system) and paper charts, we’d find the sweet spot – the location that DNR has listed as oyster reef, then we’d simply boat across back and forth, pushing that 20 foot pole down into the water, listening for a “clink”. You could easily tell what the bottom surface was by the sound and feel – oyster shell, gravel and sand, or sticky mud. By poling around the marked area, we could identify the edges of the oyster bar, and once those spots were plotted on the GPS, Chris pulled out the hand dredge, and tossed it over so we could see what exactly was down there.

Chris kept track of what we found and where (gotta love the left-brained scientists. I, on the other hand, took photos of birds and hummed a little tune as we went along, imagining the day-to-day lives of generations of watermen going over these same reefs, pulling in oysters with freezing hands and back-breaking labor). We found lots of healthy oysters – big ones. We identified several places that would work well for the Miles River MGO oysters, and also found one place that was expected to pan out as a good site, but didn’t – we found some shell, but not much. The reef was gone. Silted under, perhaps.

The next day, I joined in as they went out on Harris Creek (I wanted to see my new local waters from a boat). And all I’ll say about the fact that it was Friday the 13th is that we were fairly lucky that we only ended up with a couple of troublesome things – a wheel ripped off the boat trailer, a cell phone dropped in the drink. Nobody was hurt. I will say that those logging trucks that are decimating the land at Pot Pie Road – completely clear-cutting the woods – and aggressively driving WAY too fast down that tiny Pot Pie Road, literally pushed the DNR truck and trailer into a ditch on the side of the road, whipping the entire wheel off the back of the trailer. I was following the boat and watched, horrified, as that big heavy logging truck came barreling at us. (I think that logging company should pay for the damage to the trailer.)

It was cool and windy, and we spent the better part of the day out there, poling around, looking for two sites – one for Harris Creek MGO participants, and another quarter acre site for a different state project.

I learned so much. One thing I learned was that those clam markers that I used to look at every day on the estate are more about oysters than they are about clams. They mark the location that clammers can work between the markers and the shore – their purpose is to keep the clammers off the oyster reefs. Who knew that?

I learned that a cow-nosed ray, using the tough mouth-plate on the underside of its head, can slice oysters cleanly in half. Whoa!

I learned that “no shellfishing” really means – “polluted waters” – here, right outside of the St. Michaels water treatment plant.

But the biggest thing I learned was on Harris Creek – that just because an entire river is labeled “oyster sanctuary” does NOT mean that oysters can grown anywhere in those waters. Oyster reefs are located through the Bay and its tributaries, but by no means are they everywhere. That was my “big take-home”, as Chris likes to say……..oysters grow best on solid, historic oyster reefs and you gotta look to find them. I guess I sorta thought that a person could develop a sanctuary anyplace on the bottom – yes, they’d need to put down shell, get permits, etc – but I thought it could happen really anywhere. Nope. The bottom has contours and shifting sands, and water flowing in different ways and from different directions. Duh, Kathy. Of course!

Chris said that it wouldn’t take long and he could teach me how to think like an oyster – says that once you understand how the bottom works, it’s fairly simple. But, given that I’ve lived with dogs for some 20 years and I still can’t figure out how THEY think, I wonder about my ability to think like an oyster, but I’ll just believe him anyway.

Special thanks to Robert Bussell who shared his lunch with me, and Chris Judy for patiently explaining, and Eric Weissberger too. I appreciate everyone who has contributed to my understanding about oysters – from Lamont Garber to Johnny Oyster Seed to Mark Connolly – local waterman, Jessica Lister, Jim Scoggins, and this team of scientists.

~ by kbosin on May 24, 2011.

3 Responses to “Searching for oyster reefs”

  1. How exciting that you got to join them, and learn so much. Some pretty intense clam dredging going on near our home on the Eastern Bay back in early April led me to research this topic as well – check out my post about it here if you haven’t already. Oysters are just so incredibly crucial to our ecosystem here on the Chesapeake and beyond.

  2. Quite the adventure, as well as an educational and entertaining read! And BTW, there’s yet another low-tech trick for locating oyster bottom: use a line to pull a length of heavy chain behind the boat while you putt along. If the bottom is mud or sand, the line is still; but if there’s oysters present, the line will hop and jump as the chain bounces over the shell.

  3. Wow. This is a fascinating post. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: