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Sometimes, when it's especially cold outside, or when storm clouds gather, Terry Witt likes to check on the babies.
"So here's two," Witt says, as she fishes a bag of oysters from the creek a few feet from her home. "They're little. When we put them in the water, you can't see them."
For several months now, Witt 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 into the ground," she says.
For generations, Witt'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. Back then, oysters were so plentiful, the watermen would literally give them away. Witt says her family was bringing in hundreds of bushels a day.
"If somebody wanted oysters, my dad would give them oysters. It wasn't a big deal," she says.
And, because there were so many, the gooey bivalves didn't seem like a delicacy. Witt's family didn't even eat them.
"We had steak," she says.
Restoring the Bay's oysters
Times have changed though. The trucks pull up to Parish Creek the way they once did, and there aren't many boats to disturb the still waters. Witt's husband still oysters, but she works as a nurse to help pay the bills. These days, no one is giving away oysters for free.
"You're thinking, if I give those oysters away, I could have sold them and that would have been a little bit toward the electric bill or mortgage," she says.
Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a nonprofit with a mission to restore the Chesapeake Bay's oysters, says a combination of overharvesting, disease, and pollution has made it difficult for oysters to survive.
"If you look back at the turn of the last century, Maryland, and Baltimore specifically, was the world producer of oysters," he says. "Over 15 million bushels of oysters were harvested each year. That has now dropped to a fraction. Just 120,000 bushels last year."
Abel says that decline in oysters is bad for the Bay, where oysters play a vital role filtering excess nutrients from the water. "Oysters used to filter the Bay in days," he says. "Now it takes a year."
And, as Witt says, it's bad for the watermen.
"It's sort of like scared money," she says. "You never feel like you're really comfortable spending what you've managed to hoard. So you have to be careful. 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 Witt, how to grow their own oysters through a technique called aquaculture.
"We're artificially doing what Mother Nature isn't doing," she says.
The University of Maryland's Horn Point laboratory provided precious oyster larvae at no cost to the watermen, and the state purchased special tanks to help baby oysters as they attach to shells.
"They send it to you in a little coffee filter," says Witt. "It looks like dark sand. Like a to-go box, like you get a pint of potato salad in. When they first attach to a shell, they're very very vulnerable. They're at their very beginning stages of growing. They're just, tiny, tiny microscopic babies."
University experts monitored the temperature, salinity and water flow. Witt says they didn't know the farming techniques, but gained some knowledge from workers at Horn Point. All together, the watermen grew about 32 million baby oysters.
"The hope is that in three years we'll be able to harvest some," Witt says. "Our plan is that we'll continue to do this on our property."
Aquaculture is spreading across Maryland as scientists, watermen and businesses look for better ways to cultivate oysters. But aquaculture isn't a perfect solution. This year, an influx of fresh water from Tropical Storm Lee decreased the salinity in the Bay and many of the baby oysters died. Witt says she's optimistic that at least some of the spat she farmed will one day be fishable. However, after years of fishing, disease and pollution, she's worried about the future of the Bay's bivalves.
"You know, you have anoxic water out there for long periods of time, they're going to die," she says. "Something like oysters, they can't hold their breath forever."
And neither, she says, can Maryland's watermen.
[Music: "Dock of the Bay (acoustic instrumental)" by The Acoustic Guitar Troubadors from Acoustic Instrumental Memories D1]
Photos: Saving Oysters