They were hardly bigger than a grain of sand when they arrived at Maritime Gloucester in mid-June. But on Monday, about 60,000 still-tiny oysters made their own sizable splash as they returned to the wild in the tidal Mill River.
For the second time in three years, the Massachusetts Oyster Project chose the river's rocky bottom, just north of Washington Street, as the best site in Gloucester to release the armada of Eastern oysters that organizers and city officials hope eventually will develop into a sustainable, community fishery.
"We want people to be aware of them, to be part of trying to build the fishery and to help protect them," said Steve Parkes, who works with the oyster project. "A recreational fishery would benefit everybody. We just have to get them to harvestable size, which is set by the state at 3 inches. By then, they will have spawned a couple times."
On Monday, Parkes was joined by other members of the oyster project and several volunteers from the local Sea Scouts in returning the oysters — most now about the size of a nickel after nearly five months in the upweller located on the pier at Maritime Gloucester on Harbor Loop — to their natural habitat.
Team members walking the estuary at low tide, with shallow, ankle-high water flowing toward the Annisquam River from Mill Pond, still found some of the roughly 25,000 juvenile oysters that were dispersed there in 2017.
"I'm seeing quite a few present from the last time," said project member Andrew Hultin of Weymouth as he splashed through the water in high boots.
That was taken as a good sign, especially since Monday's release was so much larger than 2017.
"They actually grew better this year," said Sarah Valencik of the Massachusetts Oyster Project. "We adapted some of the methods we use to take care of them and with better methods we got better results."
Still, organizers said it will take several years of oyster infusions in the area to develop it as a proper habitat and sustainable fishery, as oysters grow and spawn and their offspring do the same, generation after generation.
City Shellfish Warden Peter Seminara echoed that sentiment, saying a sustainable oyster fishery likely is years away.
Current city ordinances, he said, permit any valid recreational shellfish license holder to harvest up to 15 pounds of mixed shellfish per day or a total of 60 pounds per week. Commercial harvesters may take up to 200 pounds of mixed shellfish a day.
Still, the future Gloucester oyster fishery most likely will be recreational.
"I can't foresee any commercial aquaculture of oysters in Gloucester," Seminara said in an email. "Depending on how well the development of a resource of Eastern oysters in the Mill River works out, there is the potential for a very limited commercial fishery or a non-commercial only fishery. It is still in its infancy and while sporadic pockets of Eastern oysters do occur in our area, there has never been a historical population of any size or a commercial fishery targeting oysters that I'm aware of."
But, Parkes said, the benefits that accrue from the oysters' presence in the local waters make it worth the wait.
"They help to clean the water, create new habitats and help with erosion control," he said. "It never hurts to have shellfish in your local waters."
Parkes said the crop of oysters that went into the water on Monday will not attach to anything permanent and remain largely at the whim of natural forces such as tide, current, winds and temperature.
"They won't attach, but their children will," he said.
Parkes also said the fall is the best time for reintroducing the juveniles to the water. By then, they've matured sufficiently to hold their own in the wild. And the cooling waters have slowed the metabolism of some predators, such as green crabs, making them less aggressive and giving the oysters a better shot at survival.
The oysters and the project team couldn't have asked for a better autumn day to go splashing in the river.
The mid-morning was sunny and warm and the oysters arrived in six large plastic buckets. Team members first performed a little science — observing and counting the Eastern oysters still in the area and marking off the locations for the day's dispersal.
Then came the fun part, as the team took turns reaching into the buckets for handfuls of tiny oysters that then were tossed, laid and sprinkled into the water and along the rocky bottom. Hultin referred to it as being "Johnny Oysterseed."
Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT