Oyster-Saving Efforts a Wash In Chesapeake
Fewer Bivalves in the Bay After $58 Million Campaign

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?

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.

"The big engine," Paynter said.

Around most of the bay, the engine has stopped running.

"You're talking about sort of a lunar landscape here," Paynter said. He was looking at video of a neighboring area, buried in silt and only lightly seeded with oysters. After heavy harvests and diseases and dirt washing off farm fields and suburban lawns, this is what's left of many reefs.

For decades, governments have tried in vain to change this picture. Since 1994, federal and state officials together have spent about $19 million in Virginia and $39.7 million in Maryland on oyster projects.

But at last count, oyster numbers appeared to have declined since 1994. One EPA estimate found they had fallen about 20 percent, although some officials say that's too pessimistic. And watermen have left the oystering business as harvests have declined. More than 2,000 of them harvested oysters in Maryland in the 1980s. The average number of watermen from 2002 to 2006 was about 530.

"We must accept the fact that efforts to date to restore native oyster populations have failed," a pair of researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Rutgers University wrote in a report last year. "The prognosis . . . is continued failure."

Scientists and activists point to two significant missteps. One of them, they say, was growing millions of oysters specifically so watermen could catch them.

In Maryland, for example, state officials paid to create new oyster habitats in the bay by piling up old oyster shells so larvae would have a place to attach. Once they did, the state uprooted them and moved them to sections of the bay where oyster diseases are less virulent. Then watermen took some of them.

This program, paid for mostly with taxpayer funds, supplies at least 70 percent of all the oysters that watermen catch in the state.

But outside researchers say it does little to help the oyster population. The bivalves that survive dirt and disease -- the ones most likely to produce their own baby oysters -- often wind up in stuffing.

"We're at 1 percent or less [of the oyster's historic population]. That's collapsed. We're still fishing. It's kind of like if we were still whaling on the East Coast," said David Schulte, an oyster expert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "I mean, the population may never recover. It may not recover now anyway."

In the past, state officials have responded that disease would probably kill these oysters, so it was better that watermen benefit. Virginia officials still say so. Maryland officials say they have begun to question this view, although they have continued the work on a smaller scale.

Another objection has to do with the design of government-built oyster habitats. Some scientists say they should be a foot or more tall, so oysters stay out of the mud. But, in both states, officials continue to build many shorter reefs.

"It's just more expensive to try to do" a larger reef, said Jim Wesson of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. He said the height had little effect.

In the Great Wicomico River in Virginia's Northern Neck, a group led by the Corps of Engineers says it is proving otherwise. It built a taller reef and watched oysters spread across it: about 183 million of them. When a metal dredge was raked over the reef, it came up full of big, stone-colored oysters.

"What's wrong with this picture?" said Rom Lipcius of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "Oysters can't come back?"

Academics and officials are looking for new oyster strategies. Some state officials say they need a huge increase in funding. Others want to introduce an oyster species from Asia. Some watermen want freedom to catch more oysters. Some activists want them to catch fewer and start farming oysters instead.

No matter what, the prognosis for oysters is depressing. Unless the oyster develops resistance to diseases, its best-case scenario might be to hold out only in pockets of the bay.

"It's not going to be John Smith's bay," said Rich Takacs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "And it's probably not going to be your grandfather's bay."

For watermen, the picture is not much better. On the Lynnhaven River in Hampton Roads, Peter Nixon embraced the call to be a shellfish farmer and found his new life to be more stressful than his old one. He figures he needs to sell a million oysters a year to make any kind of money, but so far he has the capacity to raise about 200,000.

And what about marketing his product? What about oyster thieves? And what if a hurricane comes?

"God, I don't know if we'll ever get there," he said.

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