Beth Lawton, a member of the 2015-2016 Maryland Master Naturalist training program, has chronicled her experience in a series of essays. Registration is underway for the 2016-2017 program, which runs October through July. Click here for more information or to submit an application, or contact Robyn Affron, Master Naturalist Facilitator.
Chapter Ten—Oy, Oysters!
I arrived at the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center, Tilghman Island, for the last formal classroom session of the Maryland Master Naturalist program to find instructor Carol McCullough, a bucket of oysters, and a plethora of intriguing tools ranging from an electric power drill, paper towels, and dissecting knives, all the way to a chain mail glove. Appropriately, this culminating class took place in the brand-new classroom at Phillips Wharf and focused on the renowned oyster, symbol of the Chesapeake Bay and our coastal plain curriculum. A native Marylander, Carol is a professional estuarine ecologist with 30 years of experience in Chesapeake Bay science.
Carol quickly familiarized us with the basics of oyster anatomy, clarifying many aspects of the creature that one would not learn as part of the local raw bar experience. We learned about gender (most oysters start as males and then switch to females as they get older and larger); bilateral symmetry and how it differs in oysters; the oyster circulatory system; a brief history of the harvesting of oysters in the bay; the types of tools used for dissecting oysters; oyster predators (besides humans); and how the oyster decides whether something is worth eating and, if it’s not, how the food item become pseudo-feces.
Next, we turned our attention to diseases that affect oysters, most notably dermo disease, which is caused by Perkinsus marinus (something akin to a dinoflagellate), and MSX (shorthand for Multinucleate Sphere Unknown), caused by Haplosporidium nelson, a single-celled protozoa. This area is Carol’s specialty, and we learned about pathology, diagnosis, transmission, and the effects of the disease on the oyster population. Throughout the discussion of oyster diseases, Carol wove in aspects of efforts to return the oyster population to more robust levels and the impact of other events, such as World Wars and severe droughts, on oyster harvests. Other topics covered included mega-restoration projects, “kitchen wisdom,” oysters’ role in filtering the Chesapeake Bay, oysters in restaurants, and Maryland regulations about aquaculture.
We took a short break and walked across a parking area (with a rain garden!) to meet with Kelly Cox, the director of Phillips Wharf Environmental Center. Kelly gave us the grand tour, showing the outdoor holding tanks, the floating upweller (which helps with artificial feeding), the nursery tank upweller (which can also be a downweller for raising oyster larvae), and some new equipment still being installed. Kelly also described the high school training program that Phillips Wharf sponsors, along with Chesapeake College, with the goal of providing students with background and experience needed to become aquaculture farmers.
Returning to the classroom, we dissected some of the oysters that Carol had provided, and she also prepared some microscope slides with iodine stain of oyster rectum tissue (“butt studies”) that had been incubating for one week. We looked at the prepared slides through the microscope and were able to see the “little black balls” that were diagnostic for dermo disease.
During the lunch break, our MMN coordinator for Phillips Wharf, Kayla Fairfield, described the use of an oyster farming cage. After a few classmates gave short presentations on their final projects—the paw paw tree and making paw paw jelly, educational materials for the Fishmobile, and creating a monarch waystation at Adkins Arboretum—we were treated to visits from two oystermen, Captain Wade Murphy and Captain Rob Bowen.
Captain Wade offered a captivating, albeit somewhat sad, tale of the changes in oyster fishing that have happened since he started working the Bay with his father in 1957. Captain Wade uses a skipjack and has had only two boats over his career (1964-1984, and 1984 to the present). He had some very practical and cooperative advice about how fishermen and environmental organizations could work together to restore the oyster populations.
Captain Rob, “not a skipjack captain” (he said, with some emphasis), also talked about strategies to help the oyster populations while still making a living from harvesting. He gave insight into the realities of working the Bay between October 1 and March 31 (the
season for harvesting wild oysters), noting that in a good year, there would be 100 days of fishing. Captain Rob also works as a tugboat captain to fill in when the harvests are down or when the season is closed.
We closed our last classroom session of this first year of training with details about the take-home examination (due next month) and paperwork with which we can evaluate the program’s instructors.
In some ways, the program has gone by very quickly, but it has also required a great deal of focus, lots of reading and preparation work, and stretching of my understanding of my place in the natural world and in the world of naturalists. I find myself giving the “elevator speech” when I tell people I am becoming a master naturalist—it has nearly a mystical ring in my ears—but I’m not so sure others have that same sense. Many people respond, “oh, that’s nice, but what can you DO with it?” Trying hard not to flippantly say, “Save the planet!” I draw the parallel between Master Gardeners (cultivated world) and Master Naturalists (natural world) and also talk about lifelong learning, the joys of being outdoors, and this insatiable curiosity that seems to accompany my every waking moment. I am delighted to have had this opportunity, and I look forward to continuing my training into the second year, which entails volunteer time and advanced training classes. I’m especially glad to have had the chance to write this blog, as it has given me a great reason to take pictures and copious notes, and actively reflect on the whole process of becoming a master naturalist.
Maryland Master Naturalist-in-training