Above: Assistant Director of VIMS’ Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center, Jessica Moss Small, instructs a group of course participants.
The biennial Master Oyster Gardeners (MOG) Course has graduated more than 100 volunteers. The course covers oyster biology, oyster reef ecology, shellfish diseases, breeding programs, hatchery operation and seed production, growing sites and structures, recognition of predators, and governmental regulations.
Shellfish Aquaculture Specialist, Karen Hudson, wedges the tip of a short, sharp knife into the edge of an oyster, and wiggles it back and forth until the top cracks open with a click, revealing the oyster’s gelatinous insides. Groups of curious oyster enthusiasts gather around lab tables, investigating their own freshly shucked oysters. Hudson moves from group to group, pointing out the various details of oyster anatomy as the students poke and prod the salty contents of the shells in front of them.
This is the Master Oyster Gardener (MOG) course. Amateur oyster growers from across the state have gathered at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science for this chance to earn their Master Oyster Gardener Certification. The two-day program is co-sponsored by Marine Advisory Services at VIMS and the Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association (TOGA), a non-profit which aims to educate the public in oyster aquaculture methods.
The course took place over two full Saturdays one week apart. Participants listened to lectures from VIMS scientists, took part in hands-on workshops, and toured the bubbling tanks of the oyster hatchery. Hudson, acting in her role as a Virginia Sea Grant extension partner, served as the connecting hub of information, responsible for planning and organizing the course, and answering every question posed by a student about the fundamentals of oyster aquaculture.
Hudson has been working with oysters at VIMS for nearly 18 years, and has overseen the MOG course every other year since 2013. According to her, this partnership with TOGA embodies the mission of Virginia Sea Grant’s extension program to bring together various parties invested in taking care of the Chesapeake Bay.
“It really ties in well with VIMS and the VASG marine extension program in that they’re out there connecting people to the stewardship of the Chesapeake Bay,” Hudson says. “It connects them through the love of oysters.”
“We had the life experience of it but now are getting the background, which is cool."
TOGA interacts with thousands of interested citizens through various outreach events during the year. The hope with the MOG course is that its graduates will be able to assist TOGA and VIMS with that outreach, furthering their mission of educating the public, and encouraging more people to set up their own aquatic gardens.
“[The course] started because there was a lot of interest in the community to do non-commercial oyster farming, and we had a need to get the word out,” Hudson says. “So we started the program to train the trainers, to educate the folks who would provide the outreach for us.”
The MOG course graduates will be required to complete volunteer hours, sharing their expertise with the public through these outreach events. Those who become MOGs aren’t just your garden variety oyster growers either. Though the course brings in a mix of people, from retirees to returning college students, all of them are familiar with oysters in some capacity. Most of them already have floats or bags full of shellfish tied to the pylons of their docks.
One MOG student, Ann Wood, has been growing oysters on her property for nearly 15 years, and is the last member of her family to become a certified master oyster gardener, behind her husband and her daughter.
Above: A course participant views an oyster though a microscope.
“We are a family of MOGs,” Wood remarks. According to her, one of the most interesting aspects of the course is learning the science behind a hobby she has pursued for years. “We had the life experience of it but now we are getting the background, which is cool,” Wood adds.
Wood and many of her fellow students are not only growing oysters for their own enjoyment, but also to play their part in bay restoration. Oysters are natural water filters, able to process an average of 50 gallons per day, sifting algae and suspended particles out of the water as they eat, which improves the local water quality.
“They provide local benefits and there’s anecdotal evidence that gardeners have seen more oysters in their creeks,” Hudson says. “Having more oysters in the creeks certainly can’t hurt. They’re helping filtration and improving the water quality. We can just hope to change the bay one tributary at a time, one creek at a time.”
According to Hudson, the enthusiasm and engagement of the participants makes leading this course exciting. “These are really dedicated people,” she says. “They’re really engaged. My brain can never turn off because they’re always asking questions, maybe something that I hadn’t thought about before and need to look up, so they’re a fun challenge.”
Hudson says she is always excited to help her students discover something new. “There are so many times that you show them something that you take for granted and they say ‘wow I’ve never seen that before,’” she notes. “To me, that makes it easy to spend my Saturdays presenting this course. There’s always more to learn about oysters.”Written by Sarah Ruiz, photography by Jessica Taylor, video by Daniel Diaz-Etchevehere: all 2017 Summer Science Communication interns.
“Having more oysters in the creeks certainly can’t hurt. They’re helping filtration and improving the water quality. We can just hope to change the bay one tributary at a time, one creek at a time.” Karen Hudson.
"We started the program to train the trainers, to educate the folks who would provide the outreach for us.”