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Chesapeake's Oyster Population Has Reached Rock Bottom

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.

I asked about the Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 2000, which set a goal of increasing the oyster population in the bay tenfold over a baseline of 1994 by the year 2010. How was that going?

Seven years into the effort, "There's less oysters in the bay than we had then, according to the Department of Natural Resource's own biomass data," Baynard said. "We're going backwards. We couldn't reach that goal now if it rained oysters from the sky!"

The main problem, in his view, is that Maryland officials continue to operate on the theory that they can restore oysters and maintain a commercial fishery at the same time. "Those two goals," he says, "are incompatible."

But in truth, he doesn't believe oysters could be restored to anything like their one-time abundance even if commercial harvesting were halted. Oysters have tremendous reproductive capacity but require big, three-dimensional oyster bars as a substrate for their tiny offspring to attach to in order to grow, and those bars were destroyed years ago. Moreover, MSX and dermo are still out there lurking, waiting to pick off survivors as they reach maturity, if watermen don't get them first.

It's a bleak outlook and it isn't just Baynard's. Chris Judy, who monitors oysters for the state Department of Natural Resources, is no more optimistic. He reckons "the near-term prognosis is for a depressed population and a declining fishery," particularly after poor reproduction in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

Is there any room for hope? "Well, there's a million people in Maryland that want to see oysters restored," said Baynard, plucking a number from the sky, "and we're not going to dissuade them. We need to do it, but it has to be done judiciously."

He believes the way to avoid the eventual collapse of natural oyster stocks is to offer "a new direction to commercial oystermen -- aquaculture."

The idea of maneuvering Maryland's fiercely independent watermen into a system in which instead of enjoying the right of free plunder on public bottom, they'd have to lease ground and raise their own oysters has been raised before but never went anywhere.

Baynard believes desperate times produce desperate measures, and even Judy concedes oyster aquaculture has more traction than it ever had. "There's more interest and commitment to it," he said.

Without major change, Baynard said, "The public oyster harvest in Maryland won't last many more years." His brow furrowed at the prospect and so did mine. It was a good time for Diane to make her appearance, bearing a big bowl of steaming oyster stew and a platter of fried selects.

"Local oysters?" I asked.

"You bet," Baynard said. We dived in and the world looked a brighter, simpler place, if only for a little while.

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