Saving the Oyster

October 24, 1993

They aren't "the Lord's oysters" anymore. The Chesapeake Bay oyster is perilously close to not being anyone's anymore. That reluctant realization has finally driven all those with a stake in the bivalve to agree on serious measures to reverse the precipitous plunge in the bay's oyster harvest.

The once bountiful supply of oysters now sets new records for scarcity each year. Although no waterman can any longer be heard proclaiming in a poor year that "God put them there, and God will bring them back!," there is still no unanimity on what is wiping them out and what to do about it.

After many hours of wrangling, bay interests have agreed on a cooperative research program. Two aspects are truly startling to those who have followed the decline of the Chesapeake oyster. Parts of prime oyster-producing areas will be closed to commercial harvesting so scientists can try to breed a strain of oysters resistant to the two parasites which have ravaged oyster bars. And the organized watermen have dropped their historic opposition to private farming of oysters, albeit on a very limited, experimental basis.

Both measures are so sensible it is remarkable anyone would regard agreement on them as remarkable. But remarkable it is. It is hard to think of another resource so commercially valuable and so much a part of a region's culture that has been so woefully neglected. Often paralyzed by politically powerful bay interests, the state has adopted one halfway measure after another in futile attempts to restore the bay's shellfish productivity. State scientists often knew what needed to be done; their political leaders and sometimes their administrators have lacked the will to implement it.

Since the bay is now producing barely enough oysters to assure reproduction of future generations, there is not a lot of time. The agreement reached under the auspices of the Department of Natural Resources last week is not yet in final form. It will have to be ratified by several of the groups represented. Money must be found to implement some of the programs. And if the experimental seed breeding and oyster farming does not work, what then?

Some bay watchers remain frustrated that a moratorium was not declared on oyster harvesting to allow the brood stock to replenish itself. Even in Virginia, where the once abundant bars are all but totally devastated, officials could not bring themselves to shut the industry down for a while. Chesapeake Bay watermen and packers need look only to neighboring Delaware Bay to find a once productive estuary that has been barren for a decade. If there is indeed a new spirit of cooperation among bay interests, there is reason for hope the same won't happen here. Narrow parochialism has been the oyster industry's most serious affliction.

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