Taming the oyster gatherers

February 23, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

TILGHMAN ISLAND -- Consider the oyster, a metaphor for endurance, and for change.

Despite disease, pollution, habitat loss and over-harvesting, the oyster still survives in the Chesapeake Bay, probably with better long-term prospects than are enjoyed by those who'd like to make their living catching him.

On a winter afternoon, oysters still come ashore here at Knapp's Narrows, just as they have for generations. Tongers' workboats bring them in, and so, occasionally, does one of the half-dozen skipjacks still dredging. It makes a pleasant scene, a reminder of the bay's historic abundance.

But the numbers tell another story. The oyster harvest dwindled slowly for a century, then crashed. In Maryland it totaled 1.5 million bushels in 1986. Then came the disease MSX, believed brought by oysters transplanted from the West Coast. A few years ago the Maryland harvest was 70,000 bushels. Last year, a rainy one which dropped salinity levels below MSX's tolerance, it rebounded to 200,000 bushels.

It seems safe to say that the harvest will never return to its old levels, at least in the lifetimes of today's watermen -- or of their grandchildren. There may still be opportunities to earn a living from the oyster, but they'll be in the dreaded realm of aquaculture.


Oysters and other shellfish can be profitably farmed, like chickens or trout. But self-respecting watermen, who like to think of themselves as free-roaming hunter-gatherers rather than stay-at-home farmers, tend to hate that idea. They'd mostly rather be on the state's dole, as long as it's sufficiently disguised to preserve their self-respect, than tied to oyster farms.

The story's told of a recent meeting of out-of-work oyster buyboat skippers in Annapolis, there to discuss hauling oystershell for the Department of Natural Resources' habitat-restoration program. One captain said he was willing to do the state's work and take the state's dollar -- but only so long as no one dared to lecture him about aquaculture.

All this came up here the other day at a Chesapeake Bay Foundation panel discussion on the possibilities of oyster restoration. The foundation has set a long-term goal of increasing the oyster population in the bay by eight-fold, whatever that really means. Nobody, of course, knows how many oysters are down there now. They just know there are a lot fewer than there used to be.

The oyster scientists, naturally, disagree about many oyster-related matters. But they agree on a few basic things. They agree that it's possible to raise healthy oysters and other shellfish commercially. (Virginia's hard-clam aquaculture industry had sales of about $12 million last year.) And they agree that most of Maryland's 300,000 acres of historic oyster habitat will never be restored to productive levels, no matter what government policies are adopted. Too many people now live in the bay country.

Taken together, these conclusions suggest that the era of the waterman as hunter-gatherer is almost over -- unless he turns to crabbing, as most already have. Then it will last until, inevitably, the crab population crashes, too. That probably won't be long. Right now, some 75 percent of all adult Chesapeake Bay crabs are eventually captured by humans.

One scientist, Mark Luckenback of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, remarked on the common -- and quite understandable -- attitude among watermen that if they don't take the bay's remaining oysters, disease probably will, and that therefore conservation measures are pointless.

One unintended result of this practice, Mr. Luckenback pointed out, is that oysters with greater genetic resistance to disease get taken, too, reducing the possibility that healthier strains can emerge. This is a pretty good example of a short-term economic decision which will have long-term economic consequences. It made me think of subsistence farmers selling their biggest potatoes at the market and keeping the smallest ones for seed.

Why, really, do we want to keep oysters in the Chesapeake? Why does it matter? Even these basic questions can spark arguments, especially around here.

Leaving economic considerations aside, oysters are wonderful filters. Put a hungry oyster in a beaker of algae-clouded water and the water will clear in minutes. An oyster can filter 50 gallons in a day. Fill the bay up again with oysters, and they'd do a lot to clear it. But oysters raised intensively, by aquaculture, probably won't have much impact on water quality.

And, no small point, what about the waterman's place in the human ecology? Once the last of the Bible-quoting, whiskey-drinking, fish-cop-evading, game-law-flouting, independence-loving, rubber-booted, red-faced oyster catchers has been tamed and regulated, appropriately licensed and broken to work in aquaculture or in a government job, will we really have a better society? In some ways, maybe. But only in some.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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