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Oyster-Saving Efforts a Wash In Chesapeake

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The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold describes restoration efforts for the declining oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay.Audio: David Fahrenthold/The Washington PostVideo courtesy of The University of Maryland

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008

A vast government effort to bring oysters back to the Chesapeake Bay has turned out so dismally that it has the ring of a math-class riddle. How do you spend $58 million to get more of something and wind up with less of it?

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Since 1994, state and federal authorities have poured these millions into rejuvenating the famous bivalves and the centuries-old industry that relies on them.

They have succeeded at neither.

Instead, official estimates show there are fewer oysters in the bay and fewer oystermen trying to catch them. If those estimates are accurate, the effort would be a failure of environmental policy that stands out for its scale, even on a bay where policymakers frequently promise big and deliver small.

Scientists and activists say the missteps of the save-the-oyster campaign will have consequences far beyond the half-shell bar. The whole Chesapeake will struggle, they say, missing a species that was as vital to its ecosystem as coral reefs are to theirs.

"You've got fewer oysters and fewer oystermen and fewer oyster-related businesses," when the goal was to help all three, said Robert Glenn of the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland. "Clearly, your money was not well spent."

Officials who have led these programs defend their work, in part, by pointing to the factors arrayed against them. The bay's dirt chokes oysters. Diseases harmless to human diners kill them by the millions.

In spite of these factors, officials say, they have put millions of oysters in the bay that wouldn't have been there otherwise.

"I wouldn't use the word 'failure.' We obviously have not achieved the restoration response that we had hoped for," said Thomas O'Connell, director of the Maryland state fisheries service. "Every year we have learned to do it better. But there is no oyster restoration [instruction] book out there."

The oyster's plight has been overshadowed this year, with the Chesapeake's blue crab population plummeting. But the bivalve's story is as tragic as any, given that its protagonist just sits still and filters water.

When John Smith explored the Chesapeake in the early 1600s, oysters piled up in reefs that broke the bay's surface. Underneath, they teemed with life.

"There's a mud crab there, another anemone here, another anemone here," said Kennedy Paynter, a University of Maryland professor, watching video of an oyster bed that scientists had constructed in the Patuxent River. He was pointing out creatures that glommed onto or darted among the oysters, forming the vibrant foundation of a food chain that leads up to crabs and rockfish.


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