Oysters act as a filter. The Fellows note that one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.”
When one researches Chesapeake Bay oysters, he or she will find two strict volumes of information that serve as the first two acts to the story.
First, there is the oyster’s rich history and economic impact in Maryland. And then there is the oyster’s and the industry’s spectacular crash in the late twentieth century brought on by disease.
Of late, local organizations and the state government have started to write the third act, the resurgence of the oyster, and the Fellows in MSBA’s current Leadership Academy are trying to bolster this third volume with its service project, “Heroes on the Half Shell”.
“Our project is unique,” says Amy C. H. Grasso. “Obviously what we want to do is educate people in order to generate awareness.”
The Project started in January with classroom presentations to fifth graders at four Baltimore elementary schools – Cecil, Moravia, Highlandtown, and Graceland/O’Donnell Heights. The 14 Fellows formed four teams, with each team tackling a presentation on the oyster’s plight.
The child-focus is simply explained: the problems facing oysters will take a long time to fix, and it will likely be today’s children who are doing a majority of the mending in the future, says Indira Shirma, a Fellow.
Adds Grasso: “The classroom lessons generally talk about pollution and how the Bay came to be the way it is, and then focus on what we can do to fix it.”
Following the classroom lesson, the students began collecting emptied oyster shells – mostly from restaurants – as a part of a competition between the schools. The collection runs till April. All the shells will go to the Oyster Recovery Project, a local organization that recycles the shells, which is done by setting the shells outside for a year to be weathered and sterilized by fresh rain water and sun exposure, according to Kennedy Paynter, Associate Professor with the Chesapeake Biological Libratory.
The Heroes project culminates in May with the unveiling of an oyster exhibit at the Maryland Science Center, which sees 60,000-80,000 students a year.
“This exhibit is going to help students understand the ecology of the Bay and how oysters play an integral part,” says Van Reiner, President and CEO of the Science Center. The exhibit will occupy a space in the Center’s Bay Room for three to five years, with an option to continue.
“I love this project because it’s one of those projects where we are directly involved with the community,” says Michael Hudak, a Leadership Academy Fellow.
Oysters act as a filter. The Fellows note that one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons a day by circulating water through its gills, extracting particles and algae from the water for consumption, and then flushing the water back into the Bay. The oyster’s former abundance in the Bay, the world’s third largest estuary, allowed for the entire waterway to be filtered in a few days; today it takes a year for the Bay to be filtered.
“The Bay is incredibly important to Maryland,” says Shirma. “It is a wonderful natural resource, and it is in danger.”
A hundred years ago, watermen annually harvested more than 10 million bushels of oysters from the Bay, according to the Fellows. Diseases known as MSX and Dermo, arriving in the 1950s and 1980s, respectively, lashed the oyster population, which today is near one percent of its former height. Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported 135,000 bushels harvested at end of the 2012 season.
“Heroes on the Half Shell” is the first Leadership Academy project to focus on environmental law, a caveat that attracted some Fellows to this project. The Academy is a 12 month program that mentors young lawyers to be better leaders.
Emptied and discarded oyster shells are incredibly valuable in nurturing the oyster population, and through them, the Bay. Oysters begin as microscopic larvae; to start their growth process, they need to settle on a hard and clean surface, which is hard given the muddy and filmy surfaces in the Bay today. Survivorship, says Paynter, has been best in recent years among beds of oyster shell, where the larvae will glue itself to the surface. The Star Democrat reported in February 2012 that the state government has invested in substrates of oyster shells to “recreate habitat in areas where many oyster bars are covered in mud.”
“Shell is a vital ingredient in oyster restoration,” says Stephan Abel, Executive Director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership. “It is like flour in bread.”
Once the larvae settle, Paynter continues, they will elongate and thicken their own shell about one inch a year. (A three inch oyster is market size.) Paynter says the rings on any given oyster shell represent the shell’s bursts of growth – protein secretes to form a new edge, while the area closer to center calcifies. “It shows the cessation and resumption of growth,” he says.
The shell is divided and attached by a ligament that acts as a hinge. One oyster half shell, says the Fellows, can grow 10 new oysters.
“Through the oyster competition,” says Grasso, “the children are directly contributing to the restoration of the oyster population in the Bay.”
The Project’s Science Center exhibit plans to explain the extensive history and unique importance of the oyster in an interactive display that will educate thousands of children each year. Law firms, bar associations, private businesses, and individuals have donated funds for the exhibit. The exhibit was designed by a contractor, which was a requirement.
“This whole thing is about awareness because none of us knew how important oysters were, and they are important,” says Hudak.