The Robert Lee uses a hose to wash millions of oysters into the Severn River in a systematic pattern. Photo: Kiersten Hacker

30 Million Oysters Planted in Severn River

There are 30 million new helpers in the Severn River, ready to start improving the water. Severn River Association and Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) celebrated the arrival of 30 million oysters planted in the Severn River Wednesday for the fifth year of ORP’s Operation Build-a-Reef program.

Together, the organizations raised $80,000 for this year’s deployment of oyster spat on two reefs in protected sanctuaries along the river. Since Operation Build-a-Reef’s founding in 2018, over 100 million oysters, which are integral to the ecosystem and water filtration, have been restored to local waterways.

ORP receives funding from federal agencies and other government entities as well as private donors. But Operation Build-a-Reef is especially valuable because it “takes advantage of communities,” ORP Executive Director Ward Slacum said. The program helps educate people and allows them to participate in restoration efforts through their donations.

Once the oysters reach maturity in about three years, each one will be able to filter 50 gallons, or roughly a bathtub’s worth, of water daily.

“We take our responsibility seriously to reduce runoff in the Bay, but when we fail the oysters have to fix it for us,” Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said.

Community members can participate in restoration efforts even further by growing young oysters off their own docks through ORP’s Marylanders Grow Oysters program. After maintaining cages in the local community, the young oysters are then planted on sanctuaries when they are about one inch big.

Tito’s Handmade Vodka has partnered with ORP to launch a $30,000 fundraising match campaign until June 30 in support of Marylanders Grow Oysters. Love, Tito’s, the philanthropic part of the vodka brand, was inspired by their employees in Maryland to partner with ORP and has been working with the organization to achieve its mission for years.

“We really believe that if we’re able to put good out into our communities and support those in our communities that are really making a difference that that good continues to ripple out into the world,” said Lindsey Bates, director of philanthropy operations at Tito’s Handmade Vodka.

Approximately one-third of the oysters planted by ORP come from its shell recycling program, which Slacum said is another great way to engage the community. Restaurants that recycle shell will have the ORP logo and shell will be collected from them each week. The public can also bring shell to numerous drop-off locations.

Executive Director of the Severn River Association Jesse Iliff said it feels incredible to see so many people come together to support the mission of cleaning and protecting the Severn River for all communities.

“When we have members of those communities show up to back us it’s tremendous,” Iliff said. “And the impact can’t be understated, not just because of the funding, but also because of the sense of community that people build when they know they’re part of an organization like ours that is out there working every day to make the Severn River cleaner than it was before.”

ORP and ShoreRivers will plant more oysters in the Eastern Bay this week for the Build-a-Reef: Eastern Bay campaign, working to achieve the goal of planting 100 million oysters in the Eastern Bay by 2023.

-Kiersten Hacker