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Oyster evangelist crusades for restoration

ANNAPOLIS — Two hours into a recent work day and John Flood’s jonboat is flooded. The small, square, aluminum vessel has taken on a couple of inches of water, about three-quarters of which comes from the day’s messy work of planting oysters in Harness Creek, a branch of the South River near Annapolis.

The South River Federation's Sarah Boynton dumps a bushel full of oysters onto the reef.

Flood heads the Flood Bucket oyster gardening program that raises and distributes oysters in Harness Creek. Moving the oysters out to the reef and washing the docks has caused the water sloshing around the bottom of the boat — but even with showers fading in and out throughout the morning, a little extra water really isn’t a problem.

Flood Bucket is run by the South River Federation, and named after Flood, who started hanging buckets full of spat (baby oysters) from docks more than a decade ago, years before the state started its Marylanders Grow Oysters program.

“We haven’t committed any felonies, but if we continue to treat the bay the way we’ve been it’d be criminal,” Flood said.

Oyster gardening helps clean the water and increase the oyster population. And the prospect of making a cleaner bay is what has brought about 50 volunteers into Flood’s living room, including the 80-pound division of the Davidsonville Gators football team.

Flood is thrilled so many kids have come, since his main aspiration for the program is education.

“We screwed up the bay, they’ll have to fix it,” Flood said, later adding: “If 1 in 100 finds a career path by doing this, it’d be a tremendous victory — not just for us, but for the bay.”

The bay, he said, is something we are renting from our children — and he hates it when someone returns something broken.

Before everyone heads out, Flood gathers the kids to talk about why they are gardening oysters.

He explains about water pollution, and how algae blooms are lowering the dissolved oxygen in the area and causing oysters to suffocate. Flood said it is important to take care of oysters because they filter water (up to 50 gallons per day per oyster in ideal situations). The more oysters, the cleaner the water will be.

He also goes over safety tips and explains what they’ll be working on, pops outside, swings the door open and shouts: “Load ’em up, move ’em down. Let’s go.”

Everyone heads down to the docks across a backyard that is close to pristine. Rain barrels on the side, buffers — everything about it is designed to eliminate runoff into the creek.

Flood directs the kids onto the largest dock, where they gather around to watch him empty the first buckets. Some of the adults are directed about 15 yards away.

Flood’s process is simple, and he said it served as inspiration to the state’s oyster restoration program. He hangs spat attached to seed shells underwater off docks for a year, then takes the year-old spat and puts them on a nearby reef. The process only really differs in the method of suspension — the state’s program uses cages, Flood uses five-gallon buckets with holes cut in them like wiffle balls.

“The bucket is a microcosm of what’s going on on the reef,” Flood said.

This unique method is the program’s origin. When Flood was doing construction on his house more than a decade ago, he cut holes in leftover buckets, got some spat and suspended them from docks.

Flood said the program has expanded to include docks all around the community.

The kids quickly get to work emptying buckets full of year-old spat into containers to transport to the reef a few hundred yards away. Flood has shown them how to shake the buckets to get all the oysters off the sides. The oysters go in tubs, recycling bins and bushels.

Then the empty buckets are filled with new spat and thrown off the docks. Flood said they get the new spat from Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, where they artificially induce breeding, plant the larvae on seed shells and grow them until they are old enough to transport. Horn Point provides spat for the state’s program as well, and this year they produced a record 880 million.

The spat are brought over stuffed in mesh bags about two feet long. After the day is over, Flood said he will spend a couple hours cutting the mesh, freeing what little spat couldn’t be shaken off the bags and placing them in the water.

“I hate to waste even one,” Flood said. “They all have potential.”

Three boats are running the year-old spat out to the reef. When they get there, someone runs the motor slowly while one or two people dump containers full of oysters off the side, staggering the placement.

The empty containers are brought back to the docks, then refilled and re-dumped. The process is repeated until all the oysters are gone.

When he is done, Flood takes buckets full of creek water and splashes them over the docks to wash off the crushed bits of shells and muck left behind from emptying the buckets.

Riverkeeper Diana Muller said they couldn’t estimate how many oysters have been added because they had not sorted through the buckets and counted how many oysters were alive, dead or scarred.

The volunteer turnout was good for a rainy day in October. Volunteer coordinator Jennifer Carr said the event usually draws about 40 people, and this year they had around 50.

Muller said she wasn’t surprised at the turnout.

“It’s always like this. People are really interested. People work hard. People love to see the critters,” Muller said.

Many of the volunteers who came were first timers. Flood said that’s the way he likes it.

“We’re teaching, and I want new ones every year,” he said.

One of the new ones, Faaz Rehman, is currently working at the National Institutes of Health. Rehman said he had a good time getting his hands dirty.

“In NIH you feel like you’re helping, but nowhere close to the instant gratification you get here,” Rehman said.

Another volunteer said the program helped by spreading awareness.

“It gets people out here if they don’t know what’s going on with oysters,” Esther Young said.