Reckless disregard of bay produces harvest of dread

Decline: As yields shrink and catch restrictions are imposed, experts fear that the great fisheries of the Chesapeake may be headed for rock bottom.

March 31, 2002|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

CHESAPEAKE. The name comes from the Native American word chesepiooc, "great shellfish bay." Early European settlers sent home descriptions of unheard-of abundance, of sturgeons the size of sailing skiffs, and oysters so big that diners had to cut them in half to eat them.

Captain John Smith, the bay's first European explorer, wrote in 1612: "Of fish we were best acquainted with herrings, rockfish, shad, crabs, oysters and mussels." The schools of fish were so vast that Smith tried to catch them with a frying pan.

For 300 years, bay creatures were the mainstay of Maryland's industries and traditions. But the great fisheries have been in decline since World War I, and they don't seem to have hit bottom yet.

The oyster season that ends today is expected to be the second-worst in Maryland since record keeping began in 1870, with only 120,000 bushels - about one-third of last year's harvest - brought dockside.

State licensing fees suggest that nearly 300 commercial oystermen dropped out of the fishery this year, discouraged by diseases that have killed uncountable millions of oysters. Now, more than 730 watermen are harvesting oysters in Maryland, said Chris Judy, director of shellfish programs at the Department of Natural Resources.

Last year's blue crab harvest was also Maryland's second-worst on record, at 20.5 million pounds. Many watermen pulled up their pots at mid-season, frustrated by catches as low as a bushel a day. And when the 2002 commercial blue crab season opens tomorrow, watermen throughout the Chesapeake will face the toughest catch restrictions ever, as fisheries managers struggle to conserve a species they suspect is teetering dangerously close to collapse.

Watermen are reluctantly taking jobs on shore, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "Everybody's doing what they have to do to get by," Simns says. "We're hurting."

News stories usually focus on the short term - this month's catch was better than last month's but not as good as last year's.

Consider the longer view. At its peak in 1884, the state oyster harvest was 15 million bushels. A newspaper writer of the day estimated that the industry employed 25,000 people. Whole towns were built on cast-off oyster shells. Hundreds of miles of roads were paved with them. "Oyster was king. Fortunes were made and lost on oysters," Judy said.

Net fishermen considered crabs a plentiful pest.

"There were so many crabs in their nets that they would crush them with clubs and stomp them and put them up on the banks, because there was no market for them," says marine biologist Vic Kennedy of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Those few watermen who caught crabs, which sold for a penny a dozen in 1884, told Johns Hopkins University Professor W.K. Brooks that their trotlines routinely brought in 1,800 to 2,400 crabs each day. "These men seldom went to their work before sunrise or fished longer than till noon," Brooks wrote. "In fact, most of them were home for the day at 10 in the morning."

Today, Marylanders are living on the shores of a bay impoverished beyond imagination.

What happened? A long history of rampant carelessness by virtually all the watershed's residents, the experts say.

Farmers, loggers and builders cut down forests with little concern for the torrents of topsoil set loose to wash into rivers and streams, smothering oyster reefs and underwater grasses.

Baltimore, Washington and innumerable small towns dumped raw sewage into the bay. (In The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography, John R. Wennersten quotes an unnamed Accomack County, Va., official explaining why his community did not need a sewage-treatment plant: "We've got the best one in the world. The tide comes in, and the tide goes out.")

Watermen's dredges tore apart the huge oyster reefs where colonies of shellfish in the millions acted as natural pollution filters, helping to keep bay waters clear.

The oyster catch kept falling. Commissions were formed to make recommendations.

"The catch rebounded and people ignored the report, and then the catch declined and there was another commission that made essentially the same report," Kennedy said. "And nothing was ever done."

Finally, in the 1950s, a well-meaning University of Delaware scientist began experimenting with an Asian oyster and unintentionally set loose an imported parasitic disease called MSX, for "multinucleated sphere X." The single-celled creature, and a home-grown pest called dermo, now pose an enormous stumbling block to the survival of the oyster fishery and the entire Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.

The cooperative agreement on bay restoration, now in its 16th year, calls for regionwide efforts to cut pollution, improve water quality, restore underwater grasses and other sea life, preserve forests and wetlands, control development and teach residents how to protect the bay. Maryland officials estimate it could cost up to $7 billion during the next decade.

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