Sunday, December 10, 2023

6-year-old oyster farmer releases ‘pets’ into Lafayette River

Graham Mitchell was five years old when he adopted his “oyster babies,” but after a year of raising them in the docks behind his home, it was time to take his first “pets” to their “forever homes.”

Mitchell, along with nearly 70 volunteer oyster farmers, participated in a replanting event hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation at the docks of Norfolk Yacht and Country Club along the Lafayette River Tuesday night.

The event was one of many annual replanting programs that the CBF hosts as part of its oyster restoration efforts.

According to Heather North, a CBF oyster restoration expert, one of the variety of programs that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation works to boost the oyster population along the coast is through the Oyster Gardening program which gives residents an opportunity to join the cause.

“[Oyster farmers] care for the oysters for about a year,” she said. “They just make sure that the cage stays clean and safe from predators like blue crabs that will eat the baby oysters.

While the CBF has been enlisting the help of volunteers throughout Virginia to nurture oyster spats — babies — in the organization’s Oyster Gardening Program, they have never had anyone as young as Mitchell, who joined the initiative with the help of his mother.

Mitchell says he got his start as an oyster farmer as a way to get a pet.

“My mom knew I wanted a pet and so we got them and it was very easy to take care of,” he said. “My mom didn’t have to come home during lunchtime and let it out. It was a very nice pet.”

While the young oyster farmer was leaning toward getting a gerbil or hamster, his mother Emily Mitchell, who is a member of the CBF, had told him about the foundation’s program and how he could begin raising oysters in their backyard.

According to Emily Mitchell, her son jumped on board with the idea.

“On that first day he immediately took to them,” she said. “He brought them home in the cage and he took them out on the dock. He’s really sweet with them and he tells them stories.”

On the very first night, Emily Mitchell added, the young boy went out to the dock after brushing his teeth to read his new oyster babies a bedtime story.

For a year Graham Mitchell nurtured and cared for the oyster spats in his backyard, raising about 30 of them, and while the young boy said he enjoyed the entire process he felt the most fun part of it all was on his oyster-themed sixth birthday party.

“There was this big oyster party and oyster snacks made of sixlets and little crackers and they were so delicious,”  Mitchell said.

According to North, the CBF’s oyster restoration efforts rely heavily on the recycled oyster shells that volunteers collect from more than 50 restaurants and oyster roasts throughout the state.

Participating restaurants are given five-gallon buckets so they can collect oyster, clam, and mussel shells that they would normally discard.

Volunteers then collect the buckets once a week, sometimes more, and replace the buckets with clean, empty ones.

Walter Zadan, 90, of Williamsburg, has been a member of the CBF for 15 years and has been picking up the collection buckets once a week.

Zadan says he started collecting recycled oyster shells from restaurants as part of the CBF’s initiative since the foundation began the effort.

“I thought it was kind of interesting to me, because I was in the food business all my life, and I was around restaurants all my life — I worked in them. I found it interesting because of my background and what CBF wanted, so I volunteered and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.

For about 50 years, Zadan added, he has been involved in environmental volunteerism and has taken an interest in initiatives involving local water environments. Coupling those interests with his history of work in the food industry made working within CBF’s recycling partnerships with local restaurants a perfect match.

According to the CBF, Tuesday’s replanting event collected around 10,155 new oysters, including a number of oyster babies from the organization’s youngest recruit.

While Mitchell had to depart with his pets he said he felt excited to bring them to the Lafayette River, but not before he read them one last bedtime story.

“I know now that they will be back with their ancestors and their families and they don’t have to get carried away by the current,” Mitchell said.

This article was published in partnership with WYDaily’s sister publication, Southside Daily. 

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