An overdue oyster-restoration plan

The watermen's way of life is over

aquaculture is the only way forward

May 25, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

The third paragraph in most newspaper stories about efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay by restricting some human activity — the harvesting of crabs, the spreading of chicken manure on farmland, the development of more suburban housing — contains the predictable "warning" about the consequences of the action.

The most recent example of this could be seen on the front page of The Baltimore Sun on Saturday:

"The head of the Maryland Oystermen Association warned that the state's move threatens the livelihood of the few hundred watermen still actively harvesting oysters because it would bar them from working many of the most productive shellfish bars or reefs left in the bay."

This time, the warning did not occur until the fifth paragraph of reporter Tim Wheeler's news story. But it was nonetheless there, as predictable as watermen complaining about crab-harvest restrictions (or the rockfish moratorium before that), or poultry farmers complaining about efforts to crack down on their foul practices, or developers complaining about smart-growth limitations.

Too many people — from homeowners who spread chemicals on their lawns year after year to local politicians and businesses measuring progress in the rate of building permits issued — continue to function as if the world has not changed and as if we can keep doing things the way they've always been done.

The new effort by the O'Malley administration to begin to end a century-long practice of trying to manage oysters as a wild fishery and to expand sanctuaries for them in Maryland waters is way overdue.

"Commercial harvests have fallen by 90 percent over the past 25 years, from more than 2 million bushels to a little more than 100,000 bushels the season before last," the 10th paragraph of Mr. Wheeler's story reported. There are maybe 200 watermen still trying to harvest oysters out of the Chesapeake. That anyone still tries — or is given permission to try — makes no sense. A full moratorium should have been declared years ago.

Is there anyone among us who thinks we haven't changed the Chesapeake forever, and in a way that calls for a whole new approach to using that great resource for man's purpose, assuming we "use" it at all?

Expanding the sanctuaries for oysters, encouraging aquaculture and dropping efforts to manage a depleted wild fishery — that's thinking for the new world we have created. That's science at work: science informing government about what to do to save a dying resource and rebuild a sustainable fishery.

"We can't tell you it's a sure shot," said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "But we can tell you it's the only shot."

While the sanctuaries are being established, and while the oysters get a chance to develop resistance to the parasites that have devastated the fishery, perhaps the state could employ watermen to plant trees in the Chesapeake watershed. If watermen don't want to be involved in this grand project — restoring silt-covered oyster reefs, learning about aquaculture — they should find something else to do in life.

The environmental writer Bill McKibben ("The End of Nature," 1989) is out with a new book entitled, "Eaarth." The Earth spelled with two a's is distinct from the original Earth. The original doesn't exist. "That's not the world we live on any longer," Mr. McKibben writes, "and there's no use pretending otherwise."

Human activity has changed the atmosphere and climate so much that we now live on Eaarth. Mr. McKibben says we must now adapt in order to survive on the new planet.

"We need now to understand the world we've created, and consider urgently how to live in it," he writes. "We can't simply keep stacking boulders against the change that's coming on every front; we'll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies we must abandon so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations. There's nothing airy or speculative about this conversation; it's got to be uncomfortable, staccato, direct."

So Mr. McKibben, the charter citizen of the new planet Eaarth, would probably downgrade the O'Malley administration plan for oysters from bold to meek, a result of old-world (Earth) thinking and compromise.

Around here, we're so used to the latter — politicians making deals with commercial interests — that even incremental measures seem remarkable.

But, if you were to step back and look at it from a distance, declaring 25 percent of Maryland's remaining oyster habitat off-limits to harvest seems like a small step. That the shrinking number of watermen still get access to 75 percent of the wild oyster bars and reefs (and still, predictably, bellyache about the restrictions) tells you we're still avoiding reality, still living in a world that no longer exists.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. His e-mail is

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