It is impossible not to feel empathy for watermen whose livelihoods rely on harvesting oysters, but it is essential to take a forward-looking, historically and scientifically informed approach to conservation.
The humble oyster plays an outsize role in the health of aquatic ecosystems. Not only do oysters stabilize shorelines and provide crucial habitat and food for other Chesapeake Bay denizens, they also are highly efficient filtration systems that clean polluted water, with a single adult oyster capable of filtering up to 50 gallons of water per day. At their historical peak, oysters were able to filter a volume of water equal to the entire volume of the Chesapeake Bay in a week, according to the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, a partnership that includes scientists, conservationists, aquaculturists and private businesses. Today, however, it would take the existing oyster population about a year to filter that same volume. The alliance has committed to adding 10 billion oysters to the bay by 2025.
The Maryland legislature passed a targeted oyster-sanctuary bill and a broader oyster-management plan in the last session. Those were significant steps toward protecting and restoring the bay’s oyster population, which has fallen to about 1 percent of its historical peak, according to the Chesapeake Bay office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The legislature quickly overrode a veto of the sanctuary bill by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) before adjourning on April 8, but it will have to wait until January to decide what to do about Hogan’s veto of the comprehensive oyster-management plan.
A recent assessment by the Department of Natural Resources in conjunction with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science found extensive overharvesting in nearly half of the Maryland portion of the bay. The study found that the adult oyster population dropped from 600 million in 1999 to 300 million in 2018.
Allison Colden, a Maryland fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, observed that
the DNR “has an obligation to use the best available science to protect and conserve the state’s resources for all Marylanders.” Even the DNR’s own data show that the plan announced in September will do little to conserve Maryland’s oysters, Colden said.
Overharvesting, disease, habitat loss and declining water quality have all contributed to the oysters’ decline. Harvesting limits and sanctuaries are having a positive effect, but the decline in the bay’s oyster population has cost the Maryland and Virginia economies more than $4 billion
over the past 30 years, according to the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance. In the 2017-2018 oyster season, the dockside value of Maryland oysters was about $8.6 million, with a harvest of 181,329 bushels taken by 940 licensed watermen.
Oyster reefs and underwater grasses are the two key components of the bay’s health and play a critical role as habitat for other aquatic creatures. A bright spot in the bay’s health is that underwater grasses have continued to recover, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, another nongovernmental organization that advocates Chesapeake Bay restoration.
As oysters and grasses continue to recover, we (and all the creatures that rely on them) will benefit. Whether we harvest or eat oysters or enjoy boating, fishing, swimming or birdwatching along the bay, we all have a stake in recovery of the oyster population and the bay’s broader ecosystem.
The DNR should consider whether its approach to oyster conservation is equal to the challenge at hand. And when the Maryland legislature reconvenes in January, it should move quickly to override the governor’s veto and help ensure the continued recovery of this cherished estuary that has long been a critical part of Maryland’s culture, environment and history.