Oyster bed unrest

August 24, 2005

THE LAST TWO decades have been disastrous for the Chesapeake Bay oyster. The shellfish population has been so decimated, mostly by disease but also from pollution and overharvesting, that the federal government is studying whether to declare it an endangered species and state officials are pondering whether to import Asian oysters to augment and possibly supplant the native stock.

With that in mind, it's downright shocking to find out that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has proposed making it significantly easier for watermen to harvest the remaining oysters in certain areas of the bay.

Admittedly, the DNR is under considerable pressure from Republican lawmakers to aid watermen and seafood processors whose incomes have waned as the oyster supply has plummeted. But state officials should reject the plan to expand power dredging -- the use of motorized boats to drag rakes that scoop up oysters from underwater beds. Unlike the more traditional hand-tonging or sail-powered dredging, it's too efficient a way to harvest. Watermen might capture oysters that were going to die anyway, but they'd also likely reduce crucial breeding stock. The strategy could simply accelerate the bivalve's decline.

We sympathize with the plight of the seafood industry. Its suffering is one of the reasons we've long supported the state's oyster propagation efforts -- including the employment of watermen for such tasks as transporting shell and juvenile oysters to replenish existing beds. But we can't support a policy that puts their short-term needs above the long-term interests of the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters are a particularly crucial resource -- as filter-feeders, they can help cleanse the water of impurities. As the resurgence of striped bass in the bay demonstrated more than a decade ago, the first step toward fostering a species' recovery is to protect, not dine on, the survivors.

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