I HAVE BEEN directly and indirectly involved in the plight of the Chesapeake Bay oyster for three years as a researcher and policy observer.
It has become absolutely clear to me that the oyster deserves much higher respect in natural resources policy in the state. In fact, if there is any hope of restoring the bay's health, the oyster must be considered a species of critical state concern -- not because it's a delicacy but because it is important ecologically.
A hundred years ago, a research professor at Johns Hopkins, William K. Brooks, warned that the oyster faced extinction if the state did not take steps to increase the number of oysters in the bay and decrease harvesting pressure. Only minimum steps were taken. A century later Brooks' prediction is finally coming true.
Why this unfortunate situation exists is being debated by scientists, watermen and policy makers. Coinciding with this debate is another, about the effectiveness of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Out of these two debates some important realizations and possibilities are emerging.
We know a lot more about oysters now than we did 100 years ago. Researchers have shown the importance of the oyster in the ecosystem. It is able to filter massive quantities of water by removing carbon, which it converts into its own growth. The oyster habitat has been severely degraded in 150 years of intensive harvesting. (In the early 1900s there were more than 17,000 vessels using various gear to haul up oysters.) A natural oyster bar is a complex, three-dimensional structure jutting high into the water column where currents provide a steady supply of LTC food and keep sediment cleared off the shells. Not one natural, undisturbed oyster bar remains in the Chesapeake Bay.
The lion's share of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup money has been spent on reducing waste discharge. While this effort has certainly been helpful in reducing phosphorus and, to a lesser extent, nitrogen, we now know that runoff from farm fields and cleared lands, as well as acid rain, are major culprits. But this pollution is extremely hard, if not impossible, to control and will continue at increasing rates as the Chesapeake Bay watershed human population increases.
We need to open our eyes and minds and recognize the crucial ecological importance of the oyster in the long-term health of the bay. It isn't enough to complacently harvest 1 to 2 million bushels of oysters a year (as watermen did through the 1960s and '70s) simply because that's what the market will bear. Today's watermen are hard-pressed to bring up half a million bushels. However, we need billions of oysters in the bay not for harvesting but to restore the Chesapeake's health.
We should immediately begin a major effort to restore the oyster while allowing a profitable and sustainable oyster fishery to exist. This process will take many years and does not necessarily require a moratorium on oyster fishing. Here's how it can work:
1. The state should strictly limit entry to the oyster fishery.
2. Oyster sanctuaries should be expanded and strictly protected.
3. More funds should be made available for research on the oyster.
4. Oyster mariculture must be promoted on a medium scale by increasing the leasing of bay bottom, providing incentives for watermen to convert to the culturing of oysters and dividing the bay into two areas, one for wild harvest and one for culture. Cooperation between mariculture operations and watermen should be promoted by requiring the mariculture operations to contribute some seed oysters to public oyster grounds.
Obviously, this plan calls for major rethinking on the part of everyone involved. But we can no longer afford to treat the oyster as a commodity that exists for our gustatory enjoyment. It is much more than that. It is an integral part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, as are we, and we must exist to our mutual benefit.
Benjamin D. Haskell writes from Shady Side.