It's not too late for Chesapeake oysters


July 15, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

"The results of our examination fully justify the worst forebodings. ... The oyster property of the state is in imminent danger of complete destruction."

- Maryland Oyster Commission report of 1884

WE'VE BEEN pessimistic about the oyster on Chesapeake Bay for a while - mostly rightly so.

Harvests of 10 million bushels annually in the 19th century slid to a few million, then a million and then to hundreds of thousands during the last century.

And now? Well, last year was deemed a success - more than 50,000 bushels after a 26,000-bushel historic low the previous year.

Is it possible to venture even guarded optimism about restoring the oyster to more than a shadow of its former abundance?

I believe so, though I think things in the short run might get even worse before they get better.

I know of no other instance, for example, where the federal government is evaluating a very credible petition to declare bay oysters an endangered species, even as Maryland expands more-efficient ways of harvesting what shellfish remain.

The big switch by beleaguered watermen last year to once-banned power dredging was certainly a factor in the 50,000-plus bushel take. As with Barry Bonds' home run records, I'll always put an asterisk on that number.

Yet, scientifically, politically and socially, the groundwork is being laid for a serious oyster restoration.

The decision by Maryland and Virginia to evaluate introducing an Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis, has produced controversial headlines, as both states, but particularly Maryland, have tried to shortcut the recommendations of scientists for more years of research.

Less noticed, however, the evaluation has fueled a wealth of new research and scientific understanding of both the exotic and native oysters.

We are beginning to understand how to design and place new oyster bars to maximize their success.

And despite its controversy, the evaluation has raised consciousness that restoring oysters means ecological benefits that go far beyond more seafood and jobs for watermen.

Oyster reefs, with their many niches and hidey-holes, are fantastic refuge and feeding habitat for other bay creatures, from juvenile crabs to young fish.

And since oysters feed by filtering water, they have a huge capacity to clear up a bay now clouded with algae that shade out valuable aquatic grasses, and suck oxygen from the water.

Some preliminary studies are indicating that we might not need to get near the bay's historic oyster populations - more than 100 times today's - to get much of this filtration going again.

Just increasing oysters five- to 10-fold could have significant benefits; and at only half of historic levels, oysters might filter the bay almost as well as they ever did.

Politically, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources has recently decided to reconvene its Oyster Roundtable, a good move that should help end a closed-door attitude on oyster management fostered by recently departed DNR associate deputy secretary William "Pete" Jensen.

The roundtable, now to be called the Oyster Steering Committee, was an important forum, a collaborative force that engaged experts from industry, environmental groups and scientific institutions.

There's no lack of issues that need to be aired, including expansion of power dredging, and the dredging of buried shell deposits from the bay to build oyster reefs, which sport fishermen argue is ruinous to bottom habitat.

Maryland scientists, along with the private Oyster Recovery Partnership and the Maryland Watermen's Association, have been pioneering small-scale oyster restoration projects that have shown good results for the ecosystem and for harvesters.

This type of collaboration among science, managers and watermen is a breath of fresh air, something new and promising on the gloomy oyster scene.

Meanwhile, Virginia has been making quiet progress in breeding into the bay's native oysters at least some resistance to the diseases that have devastated them since the 1960s.

Tommy Leggett, who farms oysters commercially on the York River, says he is now using the "sixth or seventh generation" of natives bred for disease resistance by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

He uses sterile versions, which, since they don't put energy into reproduction, grow faster and stay fat year 'round. Leggett says he has stopped growing sterile ariakensis oysters, provided him in Virginia experiments on whether to introduce them on a wider scale to the bay.

It's not that the Asian import, touted as fast growing, disease resistant and good tasting, doesn't perform well, Leggett says - just that the latest versions of the native oyster "are doing great for us."

Meanwhile, in Virginia's Great Wicomico River, the Army Corps of Engineers is bringing online the first large-scale attempt anywhere to create reefs using 15 million disease-resistant native oysters.

Certainly, formidable obstacles remain to any meaningful oyster restoration. The financial piece of the puzzle is still not there. And it will take serious money when you consider more than 90 percent of historic oyster bars are now barren.

The effort needed will be nothing less than the scale of a major public works project; but given the oyster's triple-threat potential for commerce, water quality and habitat, its restoration, whether native or Asian - or both - is an idea whose time has finally come.

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