By Greg Ellison
(July 16, 2020) Oyster spat, although barely visible to the naked eye, could have sizeable impacts on pollution levels in the St. Martin River watershed.
Long regarded as Maryland’s coastal bays’ most compromised body of water, the St. Martin River and its tributaries have improved via the water filtration provided by oyster gardening by environmental groups and waterfront residents.
Maryland Coastal Bays Program environmental scientist Carly Toulan said the nonprofit has been working with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to promote oyster gardening in the area.
“Volunteers will get oyster spat and cages and they’ll grow oysters over a period of time,” she said.
Hoping to reinvigorate oyster stocks, Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2008 initiated the Marylanders Grow Oysters program operated by natural resources and the Oyster Recovery Partnership.
Oysters reproduce when underwater eggs and sperm float together with the resulting larvae attaching to shells or rocks as minute spat that grow fairly quickly into decent size specimens.
“Sometimes it’s a year [and] sometimes a little bit longer,” she said.
Toulan said lower shore oyster production efforts have been bolstered over the past few years with assistance from Joe and Gail Jankowski, both charter members of the Protectors of the St. Martin River volunteer group.
“They established their own oyster gardening program for people living within the St. Martin River watershed, and specifically people in the Ocean Pines community,” she said.
Joe Jankowski said since 2018 the couple has been able to contribute ever-increasing counts of mature oysters to area waterways after they started raising oysters roughly a half-dozen years back.
“We donated what we had on hand,” he said. “Last year we donated about 960 oysters [and] in 2018 we donated 340 oysters.”
Last month, Toulan was amazed at the harvest of roughly 1,600 mollusks provided by a small group of volunteers organized by Joe and Gail Jankowski.
“We went and met them at the Swim and Racquet Club in Ocean Pines,” she said. “We collected all of their oysters and distributed them to a nearby oyster sanctuary and planted them on the reef.”
Toulan said the yet unnamed oyster reef is located near the Route 90 Bridge.
“They wanted to donate those to us and we happily took them because we are always happy to plant more oysters,” she said. “Especially in the St. Martin River … because that is the most degraded watershed out of the entire coastal bays.”
Gail said the campaign to assist the Maryland Coastal Bays reef projects began percolating about six years ago after the couple learned of comparable efforts by an associate in Crisfield.
“He kind of started it as a clean up the Chesapeake Bay effort too,” she said. “Joe said, ‘I’d like to try it to see if they survive here in the St. Martin River.”
After experiencing low mortality rates for oyster spat, Gail said the experiment gained significant support in recent years from fellow members of the Protectors of the St. Martin River.
“After the Protectors of the St. Martin River formed, Joe was talking to them about what he’d been doing with growing oysters mainly to filter,” she said. “We kept finding people in that group who were interested.”
Protectors of the St. Martin River was formed in response to a proposed factory-farm type poultry operation located near Shingle Landing Prong, a river tributary. The proposal led to a well-attended public hearing in April 2018 hosted by Maryland Department of the Environment, as the Worcester County Commissioners weighed approval of a proposed water discharge permit.
After becoming familiarized with oyster propagation through the Maryland Coastal Bays program, Joe Jankowski realized a small investment was all that would be needed.
“They’ve been getting donated spat on shell, which is sort of the cheapest way to get seed oysters,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m willing to spend a little money on this.”
After investing a bit over $300, Joe Jankowski uncovered an associated state tax break to absorb the expense.
“Then come to find out that … Maryland actually has a program whereby you can write off whatever money you put into raising oysters off your dock,” he said.
With tax code knowledge in hand, Joe Jankowski made a sales pitch to fellow clean water advocates.
“We can do this and it won’t cost a whole lot of money, maybe $30-$40 for a cage of oysters,” he said. “I just started building cages and people that were interested would sign up.”
The typical procedure includes volunteers purchasing a cage with roughly 75 oysters to grow for a year.
“They kept getting bigger and heavier,” Gail Jankowski said. “We kept having to build more cages.”
Gail Jankowski noted the couples’ local efforts are intended to compliment the work already done by the Maryland Coastal Bays program.
“In the beginning, they were getting their seed oysters through the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s efforts and often by the time it got to the Eastern Shore there weren’t very many … available,” she said. “There seemed to be people that were interested but not able to get seed oysters.”
To speed processes, the couple also realized regardless of spat availability, starting with seed oysters up to an inch in diameter would result in larger yields.
“Ours are bigger and they’re all ready to filter,” she said.
Volunteers working with Joe and Gail Jankowski typically retain cages of seed oysters for a year or more.
On average, oysters reaching diameters of three inches can filter around 50 gallons of water daily.
“Having bigger oysters in these cages in the river is probably more beneficial than only growing them for a year, donating them and then starting all over again with spat, which can’t filter for six months,” she said.
Toulan said oyster gardeners typically hang cages off docks or bulkheads.
“It depends on who is volunteering, where they live and what they’re able to hang the cages off,” she said. “Joe and Gail are really passionate about their program and they’re constantly expanding and growing.”
Gail said at present 15 volunteers, with two thirds being Pines residents, are involved with oyster production.
“We have people who have cages in the canals in Ocean Pines even,” she said. “We certainly have a lot of members in the Protectors of the St. Martin River who are in the pines.”
Joe Jankowski said his observations indicate the oyster gardening volunteers have helped to improve water quality.
“Our canals look great,” he said. “We’re doing more this year and next year we’ll probably do more than 2,500 oysters.”
Toulan applauded the continuing oyster growing campaign conducted by the Jankowski’s and others.
“They did all of the heavy lifting and we just collected the oysters and planted them on the reef,” she said. “Keeping oysters in the St. Martin is very, very important because we need all the help we can get to improve the water quality.”
Toulan said an increasing number of Pines residents have been contacting the Maryland Coastal Bays offices wanting to learn more about oyster gardening.
“Since we started working with Joe and Gail, word’s been getting around the Ocean Pines community and it’s been traveling fast,” she said. “You might not have a science background [or] know anything about oysters, but a program like this is something that anyone and everyone can do.”
To learn more about oyster gardening email Joe and Gail Jankowski at firstname.lastname@example.org.