When you think about oysters a lot of things come to mind: oyster bars, oyster stouts, oyster roasts. You may even think about the amazing ability oysters have to filter water, or the habitat they provide for underwater critters. But have you ever wondered whether you can keep an oyster as a pet? The answer is YES. Well, sort of.
Since 1997 the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has run an oyster gardening program that lets regular people raise oysters at home for efforts to boost the wild oyster population. If you are lucky enough to live along the waters of our beautiful Chesapeake Bay or its tidal rivers, you can garden right off your dock or bulkhead. If you don’t live along the water, there are many public locations where you can grow oysters.
So far the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has over 250 growers in Virginia. Many come back year after year to take part in this fun and rewarding way to help save the bay.
“Growing oysters is like my yoga. I come out here on the dock and lose myself in the world of these oysters,” said Claire Neubert, an oyster gardener on the Hampton River. “Each one of them is a little bit different, kind of like a snowflake. And the best part is that they are going to go back into our rivers to help clean our waterways and provide habitat. It gives me a great feeling to be able to do that.”
This June there are seven events across Virginia that let folks get started in oyster gardening.
Each gardener receives two small cages about the size of a shoe box to hang in the water off a dock or bulkhead. One will have baby oysters, called spat, about the size of your pinky nail. The second cage will be used when the oysters get too big for the first cage.
Many of the Bay’s critters are attracted to oyster reefs. American eels, fish, shrimp, crabs, a few seahorses and even A TOADFISH might inhabit your oyster gardening cages. Blue crabs could be curious as to what’s in your cage, entering it when they’re small. After a few molts, these big blues will be too large to exit the cage and will look at your oysters as a buffet. If your baby oysters got eaten, you may have a sudden craving for some crab dip, just saying!
Throughout the next year, gardeners can watch their oysters grow and eventually spawn, helping to increase the local population. After one year, gardeners return the full-grown oysters to CBF in exchange for new babies. CBF takes the adult oysters to plant onto a nearby protected sanctuary oyster reef to continue their amazing ecological work.
Contributing Writer, Heather North is a CBF Virginia Oyster Restoration Specialist.