Shrinking Oyster Population Focus of River Summit

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

The third annual State of the River Summit scheduled for Oct. 10 at Calvert Marine Museum will focus on the critical decline in the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population.

"We want people to really get a grasp of what is going on with oysters. Oysters are sort of the canary in the coal mine," said Sherrod Sturrock, deputy director of the museum in Solomons. "It is a complex problem. It has to be a complex solution."

Panel members -- including a retired waterman, a state environmental official, a scientist who has studied the Patuxent River for more than 30 years and environmental activists -- will discuss the declining oyster population and possible solutions.

The audience will be allowed to ask questions and share their view during what has been billed as "the Great Oyster Debate."

The summit will precede Patuxent River Appreciation Days festivities in Solomons on Oct. 11 and 12.

Edwin "Smitty" Smith, 61, of Solomons grew up on Smith Island. Both his grandfathers were watermen. He began helping on his father's boat when he was 6 or 7 and was captain of his own boat for 35 years, he said.

"When I got out of the Army in 1970, . . . you could make a good living," Smith said.

But the number of oyster boats has dwindled, as have the shucking operations throughout the Chesapeake Bay area. Although state and federal oyster restoration efforts have cost nearly $60 million since 1994, the number of oysters has declined, according to a recent Environmental Protection Agency estimate. Experts say the oyster population in the bay is at 1 percent of historic highs in the 1880s.

Smith said oystermen have been forced to sell their rigs. "A way of life is dying all over the bay," said Smith, who plans to talk about better water quality and the possibility of introducing Asian oysters in hopes of boosting the population.

In April, the Patuxent River was given a D-minus for its water quality by the Patuxent Riverkeeper, an activist organization, and University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. That "startled nobody," riverkeeper Frederick L. Tutman said.

The oyster population's decline stems from a lack of government regulation, resulting in more pollution in the river, Tutman said.

"We urbanized our watershed, and we ran out of clean water. Boom. That's it," he said.

Jack Greer of the Maryland Sea Grant College, part of the University System of Maryland, will be moderating the event.

"I think what may be interesting about this forum is that people will come with that knowledge of what we lost, culturally and economically, but they will also come with other ideas like aquaculture," he said.

The debate is likely to produce different opinions on how and where to grow oysters and what is killing them. Most of the panelists, activists and community members seem to agree oysters are just a small part of the larger issue: water quality.

"We are in a situation now where we can only go up at this point," said Bernie Fowler, a 40-year Patuxent River advocate and former state senator. "I hope that this summit will be another instrument . . . that will stir the minds and hearts and souls of the people to see if we can't get a groundswell, a tsunami of support to move this river off the sick list and put it on a healthy status."

Days following the debate, the governor's and the Army Corps of Engineers' oyster advisory commissions are likely to release reports on oysters and the bay's environment.

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