Let’s talk oysters. Just for the shell of it.
A Little History:
Shallow waters and a large land-to-water ratio in conjunction with sprawling developments (and their associated impermeable surfaces) and an active agricultural industry, make the Chesapeake Bay watershed a hot spot for studying the effects of nutrient and sediment pollution on aquatic ecosystems – effects that oysters feed on.
Striped bass, blue crabs and oysters are frequently harvested by watermen, served in local restaurants and praised as a part of our local seafood economy. The life-cycle, history, availability, methods of harvest, role and presence of oysters in our region, however, varies a bit from its fellow bay-dwelling species. For instance, did you know that a healthy oyster reef provides a habitat for other creatures that attract striped bass, perch and blue crabs? And that a hundred years ago more than 10 million bushels of oysters were harvested annually whereas today the population of native Eastern Crassostrea virginica is down to one percent of its historical peak?
A combination of disease (MSX and Dermo), habitat loss, declining water quality and historic over-harvesting brought about this decline that really set in in the 1950s. But fear not! Lots of amazing programs and people have come to the osyters’ aid.
In the early 90s the state of Maryland called an Oyster Roundtable – a coalition of 40 organizations, institutions, elected officials, businesses and individuals, to address the major concerns about oyster stocks in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and formulate a plan for promoting recovery. Out of that meeting came an Action Plan, the formation of Oyster Recover Partnership, and a steady rebuilding of oyster landing and outputs (details here).
A few other important landmark dates/events in recent Bay history:
1983 – Formation of the Chesapeake Bay Program – MD, VA, PA, DC, Chair of Chesapeake Bay Commission, and EPA
1987 – Chesapeake Bay Agreement – Nutrients & Water Quality (40% reduction in N & P), Toxic Pollutants, Governance, Living Resources, Public Access, Management of Growth, Population & Land Use
1993 – Tributary Strategies
2000 – Chesapeake 2000 Agreement: Protecting and Restoring Living Resources, Protecting and Restoring Vital Habitats, Improving Water Quality, Managing Lands Soundly, Engaging Individuals and Local Communities
2010 – Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Executive Order
2011 -Watershed Implementation Plans
2012 – Maryland Phase II WIP released for Public Comment
Why We Need Oysters:
Oysters are natural water filters. As they feed, they remove micro-algae and silt – that exist in the bay in excess – from the water. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. Considering the human development within the Chesapeake Watershed and ensuing runoff, those algal blooms are growing too fast and limiting the amount of light that reaches submerged aquatic vegetation – which feeds so many of our aquatic species. Oysters can help. We just need a lot of them (again)!
A Lot of Good News:
While state policies and non-profit programs are encouraging the restoration of the species throughout Maryland, there are a few “homegrown” farms, programs and partnerships warming our hearts that we’d like to highlight and thank.
The Choptank Oyster Company (Marinetics, Inc): This commercial aquaculture company is driven by sustainability. By farming native oysters, they hope to reduce the fishing pressure on wild oysters while the several million oysters growing in their Dorchester County farm are naturally filtering excesses of nutrients that plague the bay. Their floating oyster reefs also serve as a habitat to may of the invertebrate species that would inhabit a natural oyster reef.
Shell Recycling Alliance (Oyster Recovery Partnership): Because oyster shell is a limited natural resource that provides crucial natural habitat for new oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, it is important that shucked shells make their way back to their bay beginnings. The folks from the Shell Recycling Alliance collect from participating restaurants, caterers and seafood wholesalers throughout Maryland, Virginia, Washington D.C. and Delaware to deliver the shells to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Hatchery, where they perform the oyster setting process with spat raised to replenish the oyster population. Check out this interactive map that shows all the SRA participants. Pretty cool, huh? (Note: “Just for the shell of it” is the SRA’s catch phrase and we hope they don’t mind us promoting it)
Oyster Gardeners: Backyard oyster-grower, Jim McVey (pictured), a homeowner on Hellen’s Creek (a small offshoot of the Patuxent), is one of a growing number of waterfront residents growing native, natural (diploid) as well as triploid oysters at their docks to help restore water quality in Chesapeake Bay. The oyster gardening movement began in the early 1990s with the Magothy River Association gardeners raising oysters to replant an old reef. While not everyone’s water possesses the suitable salinity and bottom for planting oysters, the Marylanders Grow Oysters (MGO) movement is growing strong.
Theses are, of course, just s sampling of amazing efforts being made to restore oyster populations as well as the health of the Chesapeake Bay as a whole. For more information on issues facing the watershed, visit the Chesapeake Bay Office of the NOAA , the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the Chesapeake Research Consortium, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
Note: Special thanks to Jennifer Beidel, blogger at Through the Fence, for her contributions to this post.