MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Here in the D.C. region, we're having trouble maintaining the stock of another water bound creature, oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. For generations, Maryland's watermen made their living catching and selling oysters. But the population of these once ubiquitous bivalves is now at less than one percent of historic levels so some researchers are teaching watermen how to replenish the Bay's oyster stock and enhance their livelihood through aqua culture. Jessica Gould takes a look at what it means to teach a fisherman to farm.
MS. JESSICA GOULD
Sometimes, when it's especially cold outside or when storm clouds gather, Terry Whit likes to check on the babies.
MS. TERRY WHIT
So here's two. They're little. When we put them in the water, you couldn't see them.
For several months now, Whit has been nurturing baby oysters with the devotion of a new mom. But she says her attitude toward the youngsters, called spat, isn't maternal. She feels more like a farmer.
It feels just like when I put a bunch of beans in the ground.
For generations, Whit's family has lived in Shadyside, Md. on the banks of Parish Creek, a small inlet that stretches into the Chesapeake Bay and for generations, the family has caught and sold oysters to make a living.
The two trucks sitting here, one backed up to each little pier and they were bringing in, you know, hundreds of bushels that they bought every day.
By the time she got home from school...
There were boats all over here and I would set my stand up and sell them sodas.
Back then, oysters were so plentiful the watermen would literally give them away.
If somebody wanted oysters, they came down, my dad got them oysters. It wasn't a big deal.
And because there were so many, the gooey bivalves didn't seem like a delicacy. Whit's family didn't even eat them.
We had steak.
But times have changed. Trucks don't pull up to Parish Creek anymore and there aren't many boats to disturb the still waters. Whit and her husband still oyster, but she works as a nurse to help pay the bills. These days, no one is giving away oysters for free.
You can't be generous because you're thinking, geez, if I give those oysters away, I could've sold them and that would've been a little bit towards the electric bill or the mortgage.
Stephen Able is executive director of Oyster Recovery Partnership, a non-profit with a mission to restore the Chesapeake Bay's oysters. He says a combination of overharvesting, disease and pollution has made it difficult for oysters to survive.
MR. STEPHEN ABLE
If you look back at turn of the last century, Maryland and Baltimore specific was the largest producer of oysters, over 15 million bushels of oysters were harvested each year and that since now has dropped down to a fraction. Just 120,000 bushels last year.
The decline in oysters is bad for the Bay, where they play a vital role filtering excess nutrients from the water.
Oysters used to filter the Bay in days and now it takes over a year.
And as Whit says, it's bad for the watermen.
It's sort of like scared money, you never feel like you're really comfortable spending what you've managed to hoard so you have to be careful because nothing's promised.
So last summer, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources teamed up with the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the University of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to teach 16 watermen, including Whit, how to grow their own oysters through a technique called aqua culture.
We're artificially doing what Mother Nature isn't doing.
The University of Maryland's Hornpoint Laboratory provided precious oyster larvae at no cost to the watermen.
They send it to you in a little coffee filter and it looks like dark sand.
And the state purchased special tanks to help baby oysters as they attach to shells.
When they first attach to the shell, they're very, very vulnerable. They're just at their very beginning stages of growing. They're just tiny, tiny microscopic babies. You can't see them with the naked eye.
Then University experts monitor the temperature, salinity and water flow.
We don't know how to test water. We didn't know what salinity we needed to do. We didn't know all the farming technique, but the guys at Hornpoint have been doing this for years and they shared that knowledge with us, which is a huge thing.
All together, the watermen grew about 32 million baby oysters and put them on the bottom of the Bay.
Our plan is we will continue doing this, but at our property.
Aquaculture isn't a perfect solution. This year, an influx of freshwater from tropical storm Lee decreased the salinity in the Bay and many of the baby oysters died. Still, Whit says she's optimistic that at least some of the spat she farmed will one day be fishable, but after years of fishing, disease and pollution, she's worried about the future of the Bay's oysters.
You have anoxic water out there for long periods of time, they're going to die. Something like an oyster, they can't hold their breath forever.
And neither she says, can Maryland's watermen. I'm Jessica Gould.
After the break, why this playwright is putting her problems with intimacy out in the spotlight.
MS. LAURA ZAM
Once I started turning this into art, it stopped being quite as heavy and it's stopped being secretive and dark and twisted in its own way.
It's just ahead on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5
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