Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Oystered Out

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, the current population of oysters in the Bay is around 1 percent of where it was when Europeans explored the area in the early 1600s. How did we get from a situation where there were so many oysters in the Chesapeake that they could filter the Bay once every three or four days, to the situation where they can filter it perhaps once or twice a year?

It's a story, like so many others of this sort, of greed, mismanagement, and in the end, a lack of will. Unfortunately, these traits persist in the Bay region to this day. A great little primer I've come across is The Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay by John Wennersten, published in 1981. Several interesting details from the book follow.

In 1884, 15,000,000 bushels of oysters were taken from the Bay, which represented the height of the fishery. (As recently as 2005, it was down to 32,000 bushels).

Did you realize that the aquatic boundary between Maryland and Virginia, east of the Potomac River was largely the product of oyster bar harvesting disputes that had to be settled by the US Supreme Court? And, that watermen on both sides of the border were killed in skirmishes over harvesting rights?

When do you think first State-funded survey of the oyster population in the state took place? 1980? 1950? It was actually 1876, and the Naval Lieutenant who headed up the mission, Francis Winslow, warned then that oysters were being taken from the Bay at a rate far greater than natural reproduction could offset.

We are told that the downfall of the Chesapeake's oysters was disease, Dermo and MSX, but the truth is, disease has been able to sound the death knell for a population that was already ravaged to within an inch of its life by human greed. And yet, after 130 years, we have learned very little. We continue to allow menhaden, crabs, and other aquatic organisms to be taken from the Bay at an unsustainable rate. Will 2008 be the year we finally learn from our mistakes?

The chart below is great source of oyster milestones on the Chesapeake from NOAA [Click to enlarge].

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