A turning point for bay oystering

ON THE BAY

Dredging: Hurt by a dismal harvest, watermen look to unconventional and risky methods.

February 14, 2003

WHEN WE LOOK back in a decade or so, the winter of 2003 may be seen as a major turning point for oystering in Chesapeake Bay.

It won't mark the end of oystering, but rather the end of oystering as we have known it for 160 years -- an occupation pursued by independent watermen in the wild.

No one wants to come out and say it, but recent events show the writing on the wall -- the current system's broken beyond repair, and increasingly, Maryland and Virginia seem inclined to try something different.

Last month, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources and the General Assembly let watermen begin power-dredging for oysters in significantly expanded areas of the Chesapeake, despite concerns by scientists and conservation groups that it could make a bad situation worse.

Power dredging -- dragging a heavy, toothed steel cage behind a motorized boat -- has been severely restricted since the 1800s because it is so efficient at taking oysters, and because it can damage some oyster beds.

The current expansion would not have been seriously considered even a few years ago, when harvests in Maryland topped 400,000 bushels. But this year, even with power dredging, state officials think we will be lucky to see much more than a tenth of that. The drought has made the bay salty, stimulating a massive comeback of diseases such as MSX that kill up to 80 percent of the mature oysters on some bars.

Watermen are obviously looking to harvest more oysters in what has become a desperate winter for many of them.

But they also sincerely believe that "working the bottom" by dredging makes the beds more productive, cleaning silt off buried shell and providing a clean substrate for baby oysters to attach.

Eric Schwaab, DNR's fisheries director, concedes that this isn't a clear-cut outcome, but says he thinks "there is possibly some upside" for the environment in letting watermen increase power dredging. "We're not just doing it to give them more oysters," he said.

But oyster scientists like Roger Newell of the University of Maryland say there is no evidence that what's going on this winter will accomplish anything but taking more oysters at a time when populations are at historic lows.

After viewing DNR's own videotapes of power-dredged oyster bars, and looking at studies of dredging's effect on reproduction, I would side with Newell.

There may be some spots in the bay where power dredging is sustainable, encouraging enough reproduction to maintain a low level of harvest.

But for the most part, it's a polite fiction -- based on folklore, not science -- that what's happening this winter is any way to manage the bay's oysters.

But what is the way to manage the bay's oysters? That's much harder to know. The answer is critical, not only economically for watermen, but also ecologically -- the bay desperately needs to regain its historic populations of shellfish to filter pollution from the water as they feed.

Watermen, in unprecedented cooperation with scientists and environmental groups, have spent recent years working to restore oyster reefs and set aside sanctuaries free from harvest to act as reservoirs of spawning.

Despite this, and unprecedented millions of dollars spent on it, we are clearly headed the wrong way. Despite almost heroic efforts, nature rules, and harshly.

It's conceivable that with a few rainy years to get fresh water back in the bay and suppress disease, harvests would rebound if we stayed the present course (not including widespread power dredging).

But it's unlikely the next peak would be anywhere near the 1999 total of 423,000 bushels. And the next valley -- when drought and salt inevitably return? You wouldn't want to see it.

Clearly, it's time for changes. Money to continue the present course is getting scarce, along with the buried, fossil shell the state has been dredging up to rebuild oyster bars.

Increasingly, sport fishermen are challenging the fossil shell dredging, noting its potential negative effect on fish habitat, and asking, "What for?"

Virginia, whose traditional oyster industry scarcely exists any more, appears close to experimental releases of up to a million exotic oysters that are native to Asia. Maryland officials, long opposed to this on the basis that the newcomers could out-compete the bay's native oysters or wreak other harm, are softening now.

The exotic Crassostrea ariakensis tastes good and is disease-resistant. There's some evidence it might not thrive in the open bay, but it could be an excellent animal for aquaculture.

That in turn may force the state's hand on whether to continue supporting traditional wild harvests, or to back oyster farming on a large scale.

Yet another possibility is to clean oyster bars entirely of their diseased shellfish and replace them with laboratory-bred, disease-free oysters.

Doing this effectively would probably require the use of specialized dredges and equipment that have little to do with techniques currently employed by watermen.

In the past it has sometimes seemed we had more oyster experts than oysters; but these days I don't hear anyone with neat solutions to preserve oystering's future.

What does seem clear is that for oystering's traditional past and present, the string has about run out.

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