Shell Game on the Bay

April 24, 1993

Oysters represent the paradigm caprice of nature. The succulent bivalves are a gustatory delight and yet are easily tainted to cause extreme human misery. The magnificent mollusks are indefatigable purifiers of polluted water, each filtering up to 50 gallons per day, but they are highly vulnerable to two unstoppable parasites, Dermo and MSX.

This year, the Maryland oyster harvest was the lowest in history, less than 1 percent of the catch a century ago and half of last year's total. The parasites have infested nearly all of the bay's oyster bars and decimated the population, leading to steady but dramatic decline in yearly harvests. Scientists cannot stop the natural predators, nor can they yet breed a disease-resistant variety.

"Given as much research money as we wanted for the next 100 years, I can't see a way of getting those oysters to survive," University of Maryland biologist Roger I.E. Newell told The Sun's Timothy B. Wheeler. "I wouldn't put my money into it."

Fact is, Maryland has been putting public money into oyster breeding for the past 100 years. The result today is a pernicious triumph of nature that has reduced the state's "industry" to less than 300 boats and a dockside value of barely $2 million.

We won't quibble with the Department of Natural Resources' revisionist history of bay oyster harvests, or its contention that baby-oyster crops are near record levels. Reproduction is not the immediate problem today -- oyster survival to adulthood is the critical element.

Human activity over the past century has helped to reduce the number of oyster bars by half, through siltation and fishing methods. Overharvesting may have also played a role in the decline.

Perhaps it is finally time to accede to nature's vagaries for the moment, allowing the ecosystem to find its own solution while relieving the minor human pressure of oyster harvesting. Natural conditions, such as wetter weather, may find a way to blunt the deadly plague of the shellfish parasites.

A moratorium becomes more acceptable as oystering's economic impact lessens. With dwindling prospects, watermen may give up the pursuit anyway. But continued harvesting of live adult oysters seems to limit the species' hope for recovery.

Consumer demand for oysters has slackened, in part because of high prices, but also because of health concerns about shellfish purity and changing tastes. Maryland packing houses already look elsewhere for seafood to process for market.

Meanwhile, private aquaculture efforts to raise oysters in racks on the bay should be encouraged. The ban on roping off state waters for fisheries should be amended to promote this effort. Rack-raising trials have shown promise in producing eating-size oysters quickly, a glimmer of hope for man and the world that is his oyster bed.

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