Bringing Oysters Back To Chesapeake

John Flood, oyster farmer
Plying the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, John Flood remembers how things used to be and longs for a return to those days of old.

CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan reports Flood is a gardener who doesn't use a hoe or a shovel. He lives along one of the thousands of creeks and streams that flow into Chesapeake Bay. And he's planting oysters and remembering the days of his youth.

"When I was a child, the waters of the South River and most of the Chesapeake were crystal clear. You could see the bottom in eight feet of water and you could see grass bed, fish, and crabs everywhere," Flood recalls.

But polluted runoff from cities and farms has turned these waters dark and muddy. Algae blocks sunlight, killing fish and plants.

Flood and 900 of his Maryland and Virginia neighbors are planting "oyster gardens"— baskets and buckets of oysters tied up to piers. They hope these growing oysters can reverse the damage.

"Oysters are what an ecologist calls a keystone species to the bay system," says Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "These guys are acting like little aquarium filters and they're removing mass quantities of this overabundant algae from the water. An individual oyster can filter 50-60 gallons of water a day."

Oysters used to be a big part of the economy on the Chesapeake. At the turn of the century, oystermen harvested 15 million bushels a year. But now, after decades of overfishing, pollution, and disease, the annual commercial oyster harvest has dropped below 100,000 bushels.

Rebuilding the bay's oyster fishery may be impossible, but that small idea—"oyster gardens"—has grown into one very big project for cleaning it up.

At Maryland's largest oyster hatchery, researchers spawn millions of juvenile oysters and attach them to old, discarded oyster shells to grow.

In two years, these young oysters become strong, healthy colonies. The State of Maryland has just planted four million of these colonies in a river where it meets the Chesapeake.

"Every oyster that we have out there is another oyster that's gonna be spawning and another oyster that's gonna be contributing to the potential natural recruitment in the bay," says scientist Don Meritt of the University of Maryland.

Flood believes it will work; that the bay will be restored.

"We're not gonna fail," he said. "We want to prove it out on this creek because it will empower people. They'll realize that one person and a community can make a difference."