Where have the oysters gone?

April 28, 1992

It's been another devastating oyster season for Chesapeake Bay watermen. As one scientist succinctly noted, "It was lousy." This year's harvest appears to be well below last year's 418,000 bushels, which is 60 percent less than 10 years ago. The situation in Virginia waters is even worse.

What's happened to oystering? Where have all the oysters gone? Everyone agrees that a big part of the decline is the continuing presence of two parasitic diseases, MSX and Dermo, that don't pose any danger to humans but are deadly to oysters. But environmentalists point to more fundamental problems that are threatening bivalve production: overfishing and pollution.

Last year, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called for a three-year moratorium on oystering to give the shellfish a chance to recover from MSX and Dermo. In recent months, the Virginia Marine Resources Institute echoed those sentiments.

Such a step would be harmful to watermen. But doing nothing would be even more injurious. Oysters are not only an important source of income for watermen but a key element in the bay's health. The bivalve feeds on nutrients and organic matter that are responsible for degrading water quality.

The Virginia marine institute recommended putting hardy Japanese oysters in the bay to stimulate the harvest. A Maryland task force last year suggested setting up large sanctuaries where oyster harvests would be off-limits. Others recommend greater efforts to rebuild oyster beds in less salty regions of the bay as well as increasing the minimum 3-inch size of oysters being harvested.

The Department of Natural Resources is working on a plan for later this year. One bright spot was the outstanding 1991 spat set of young oysters, but they won't reach harvest size for two more years. Also, the state's efforts to create new oyster bars seems to be working. Yet the harvest continues to hover around 400,000 -- a far cry from the 3 million oysters harvested 20 years ago.

The plight of the oyster underlines the importance of cracking down on polluters. We cannot permit the degradation of the Chesapeake to continue. The General Assembly enacted legislation aimed at protecting "sensitive areas" that could pollute the bay. Counties near the Chesapeake should be especially alarmed about the bay's declining health. The new law will give them a chance to take steps to rein-in development that could prove harmful. With the future of the Chesapeake -- and the livelihood of bay watermen -- at stake local officials have a strong incentive to become concerned and determined environmentalists.

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