Chesapeake's Oyster Population Has Reached Rock Bottom

Watermen once harvested 10 million to 15 million oyster bushels a year in the Chesapeake Bay, obliterating oyster bars. Now, Maryland waterman are lucky to bring in 100,000 bushels.
Watermen once harvested 10 million to 15 million oyster bushels a year in the Chesapeake Bay, obliterating oyster bars. Now, Maryland waterman are lucky to bring in 100,000 bushels. (Photos By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Angus Phillips
Sunday, December 9, 2007

If, as the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, humans were put on Earth to experience the beauty of simple things, what better place to start than the lowly oyster? It lives in the dark at the bottom of the bay, slurping nutrients and staying put.

Oysters aren't much to look at, but they have the attribute of ripening just when everything else shuts down. You wouldn't eat one in summer when the meat is flaccid and watery. They fatten when cold weather comes, and by deep winter they're plump, yellow and prime, right in time for the holidays.

Oyster season, as almost everyone knows, opens in the Northern Hemisphere in months with "r" -- September through April -- which could be why in Maryland we call them "arsters." The season peaks right now.

A charming thing about oysters is that they taste like their origins, taking on the flavor of the waters where they live. Having eaten fresh local oysters in France, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, Connecticut, Long Island, Louisiana, Florida, Virginia and no doubt other places, I honestly can say none are more pleasing to my palate than those from Tolly Point or Hackett's Bar at the mouth of the Severn River in Annapolis, five miles from the house. Why? Because they taste like home.

And having discovered Chesapeake oysters late in life, I don't want to give them up. The worry is that they're giving up on us. That's where this simple thing gets complicated.

Chesapeake oysters, once abundant beyond belief, have been on the verge of collapse for 20 years. Around the turn of the last century, they were plundered mercilessly to feed the entire Northeast. At the height of the madness, watermen took 10 million to 15 million bushels a year, in the process obliterating natural, three-dimensional oyster bars that checkered the bay's bottom from Norfolk to Baltimore.

By the mid-1900s, as the resource grew scarcer and many bars were fished out, the catch fell to a more manageable 1 to 2 million bushels a year. Then disease, in the form of two natural waterborne pathogens, MSX and dermo, wreaked more havoc in the 1980s and the harvest dwindled precipitously. These days, Maryland watermen are lucky to catch 100,000 bushels a year; in 2004, the worst year on record, they landed 24,000 bushels.

If that weren't depressing enough, the fishery today is propped up by lavish government programs that artificially boost the catch as oyster larvae are hatched out and grown in sanctuaries, then transplanted to public oyster bars to be harvested as they grow near market size.

"It's just a put-and-take fishery now," said Sherman Baynard, who sits on a Maryland panel charged with finding a way to restore wild oysters to some semblance of natural abundance before they disappear altogether.

The Oyster Advisory Commission was created in the early days of the Martin O'Malley administration. For a change, it is an environmental panel dominated by environmentalists and scientists rather than commercial interests. Maybe there's hope, after all.

Or maybe not. I spent a morning with Baynard last week, hoping he could shed light into the dark tunnel that is oyster policy in Maryland. A founder of Maryland's activist Coastal Conservation Association, he's a retired farmer who's as plain-spoken, thoughtful and committed to environmental causes as anyone I know.

While his wife Diane puttered around the kitchen at their Eastern Shore farmhouse, fixing creamy oyster stew and fried oysters, he painted a picture so bleak I almost lost my appetite.

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