Declining Oyster Harvest

April 22, 1992

Maryland watermen have experienced five years in a row of meager oyster harvests. And this season, which ended late last month, proved no exception. The yield remains in the vicinity of 400,000 bushels. Twenty years ago, the harvests each year ran in excess of 3 million bushels.

Parasitic disease has taken a dreadful toll on the oyster. Two persistent infections, MSX and Dermo, have made their way up the bay in recent years, greatly affecting Chesapeake oysters. These bivalves also seem to be adversely affected by the bay's declining health caused by pollution and overfishing.

Recently, the Virginia Marine Resources Institute called on Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to impose a three-year moratorium on oystering in the Chesapeake. That was identical to the recommendation of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Give the oysters a chance to recover from the parasites and from pollution, the groups said.

That clearly has alarmed watermen, whose livelihood depends on oysters and other shellfish. But the greater danger lies in a continuing decline in the size of the oyster harvest.

The answer could involve setting aside sanctuaries for oysters in strategic locations along the bay; concentrating on rebuilding oyster beds; moving seed oysters to the less salty upper bay, and possibly even experimenting with putting hardy Japanese oysters in the bay, which have shown some success on the Pacific Coast. But the best way to improve the oyster harvest in the long-term is to cleanse the bay of pollutants and keep it clean. Otherwise, watermen will have no future at all on the Chesapeake, and we will have squandered Maryland's most precious natural resource.

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