Watermen must get out of their shells


November 20, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Gulping a bit at the concessions each had to make, a fragile coalition of watermen, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, scientists and politicians will sign a pact next month to lead the Chesapeake Bay's oyster industry back from the brink of oblivion.

The group's first step will be persuading government and private sectors to invest millions in projects ranging from state-of-the-art oyster hatcheries to rebuilding reefs in which oysters grew naturally before dredges leveled them more than a century ago.

On the one hand, I'd urge potential funders to consider very seriously underwriting this effort.

On the other hand, I'd warn them to look very skeptically before committing to anything.

(Get me a one-armed scientist, Sen. Ed Muskie reportedly said during clean-water hearings years ago -- one who couldn't keep saying, "On the other hand.")

On the plus side:

* For the first time, the oyster's ecological role is officially recognized, and its restoration made a goal. Healthy populations of the shellfish, which filter water as they feed, would return a biological cleansing capacity that our polluted waters now lack.

* It may be the last chance, if not for the oyster, which is in no danger of biological extinction, at least for the industry.

Disease, pollution and overfishing have pushed oyster harvests from the millions of bushels a year, to the hundreds of thousands RRTC and, this year, probably the tens of thousands.

Virginia's harvests are measured by a few thousand bushels a year nowadays. Other areas of the country are taking over the market from both Maryland and Virginia.

Three years ago, when harvests were still near a half-million bushels, Maryland statistics showed two-thirds of the state's 2,500 licensed oystermen grossed less than $1,000, and only 9 percent grossed more than $10,000. That has only worsened since.

* This is the first time all parties in the multifaceted dispute over what to do about oysters have agreed on any restoration plan. The state Department of Natural Resources deserves a lot of credit for making it happen.

Unwieldy beast

On the minus side:

* To gain consensus, the Oyster Roundtable, as the months of talks leading to the pact were called, had to create an unwieldy beast.

Essentially, the plan calls for moving into the modern world of aquaculture while maintaining traditional watermen's harvesting of shellfish.

Politically, it was probably the only way to go. If we can pull it off, somehow meld the efficiency of farming with the tradition and mystique of skipjacks and workboats, who could disapprove?

But it may prove as difficult as maintaining American Indian buffalo hunts amid the grain fields of 20th-century Nebraska and Kansas or like trying to keep a dual transportation system in our cities -- automobiles and horse-drawn carriages.

Such scenarios are interesting to contemplate, but the way of the world seems to be that things just don't happen that way.

Oysters are no exception. Around the world, there seems no example of a successful transition to aquaculture while also maintaining traditional harvests on a significant scale.

* Watermen, key to the whole scheme's success or failure, remain deeply distrustful of aquaculture of oysters.

There's nothing wrong with making sure they get a fair opportunity to be included in any new directions Maryland goes with watermen's traditional winter harvest.

Dismaying commentary

But it is dismaying to read the commentary by Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns, in the December issue of the Waterman's Gazette ("West Coast aquaculture's success impossible in Chesapeake Bay.")

Simns, who has been a major player in the Oyster Roundtable, recently made the same pilgrimage I did a few weeks before, to see Lee J. Wiegardt, a Washington state oyster grower.

Wiegardt, a third-generation oyster farmer, now outproduces the whole Chesapeake from the 2,200 acres of bottom he owns in Willapa Bay, just north of the mouth of the Columbia river.

No one on either the East Coast or West with any sense of oysters has ever suggested that what works there can simply be transplanted here.

Willapa, with a largely forested drainage basin and swept by 18-foot ocean tides, is a very different ecosystem from the Chesapeake.

Pacific Coast oystermen operate under different laws and traditions and even grow a different oyster, which probably wouldn't do well in Maryland, though it is resistant to the diseases prevalent here.

But although you wouldn't know it from the Waterman's Gazette, the West Coast can teach us a lot:

* Critical to the global success story of the West Coast oystermen is their development of hatchery techniques to raise billions of small oysters, freeing themselves from the highly variable wild reproduction.

Room for small operators

They are world leaders in this technology, which has definite applications for the Chesapeake. It is incredible, and a waste of someone's money, that Simns could go there and never mention the word "hatchery" in his report.

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