“Just for the shell of it”

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
(Photo Credit: Steve Vilnit, MD DNR)

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.

The Secret Life of Peas

Check it out! The common pea is capable of processing, remembering and sharing information with its neighbors. Michael Marder, for the New York Times Opinionater, reports:

“…a team of scientists from the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University in Israel published the results of its peer-reviewed research, revealing that a pea plant subjected to drought conditions communicated its stress to other such plants, with which it shared its soil. In other words, through the roots, it relayed to its neighbors the biochemical message about the onset of drought, prompting them to react as though they, too, were in a similar predicament.”

Any scientists/geneticists out there know if these findings have anything to do with how or why Mendel was able to study and and demonstrate inheritance through peas? Were those peas co-evolving with us and telling each other that being relevant in modern scientific experiments would foster future generations of intelligent peas that could one day outsmart their human predators? Nah… probably not… but it certainly doesn’t surprise me that they grow and work together.
Read Marder’s full article “If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?” examining the ethics of eating such intelligent life forms here.

Chesapeake Bay Week on MPT

Did you know that the Chesapeake Bay estuary, the largest in the United States, was created by a meteor impact? Can you identify which aquatic life is native, invasive, protected and depleted? Want to know how you and your community contribute to the well-being of the Bay? Lucky for you, this week is Chesapeake Bay Week on Maryland Public Television! Programming throughout April 15-22 2012 will be highlighting some hot topics around the watershed  including several brand new programs:

  • Menhaden: The Most Important Fish in the Bay – Exploration of how the harvesting of Menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay is affecting its water quality (Monday April 16th 10:00pm, Tuesday April 17th 2:00am)
  • The Maryland Harvest: A Guide to Seasonal Eating – The food-to-table movement in Maryland and its impact on Maryland restaurants, chefs, farmers and consumers (Tuesday April 19th 9:00pm, Wednesday April 18th 2:00am)
  • Restoring the Bay: New Solutions for Old Problems – Riverkeeper Fred Kelley faces challenges to help clean up the Severn River (Tuesday April 19th 10:30pm, Wednesday April 18th 3:30am)

These are just a few of the new and returning programs so be sure and check the website for the full programming lineup and set those DVRs! The week wraps up with a live music broadcast in affiliation with all the amazing folks at WTMD 89.7 too. More info on the Concert for the Chesapeake Bay here. Want more facts? Visit: Chesapeake Bay Journal..

Food = Art

I’ve been a fan of Baltimore’s own Chef Chad Wells, Executive Chef at Alewife, since I heard he was sauteing snakeheads in an attempt to eradicate the invasive fish and working with the Department of Natural Resources to promote menu items centered around local seafood species. Turns out his sustainable initiatives aren’t limited to the sea.

Earlier this month, Chef Wells teamed up with Joe Squared at Power Plant Live to host a “Campfire Dinner” in conjunction with the new monthly event promoting local talent called Food = Art. The inspiration for January’s event was to take people camping by using food you can kill yourself – all cooked in a way that can be duplicated deep in the woods – with limited local ingredients, cast iron pans, smoke and fire. And boy did they pull it off!

The constant-campfire vibe of the event, which included an all-evening performance of folky, old-timey, American awesomeness from The Manly Deeds, was authenticated with each family-style entree arriving in foil and with a single utensil per diner – a fork. If that weren’t enough, several people at our table were involved with the meal on a personal level. Mike Naylor, the DNR’s Chief of Shellfish Programs, foraged the morels that accompanied the trout dish. Austin Murphy, Pro-Staffer for Whackfactor Outdoors, “harvested” the main ingredient in the venison stew in Flint Hill, Virginia.

So in case you haven’t heard: wild game dinners are the new black. Here is the full menu for those of you anxious to recreate the deliciousness with your own circle of hunter-gatherers:

Hot Mulled Cider, Honey Comb Infused Bourbon

Hickory Smoked Trout, Pan Fried Wild Morels, Roasted Beets

Wild Duck Cast Iron Mac and Cheese, Two-year aged Grafton Cheddar, Grana Padano, Duck Confit

Fire Roasted Quail, Sweet Potato, Chorizo and Granny Smith Apple Stuffing, Smoked Pork Belly BBQ Baked Beans

Venison Stew, Dutch Oven Chipotle Corn Bread

Smore Dessert, Graham Cracker, Dark Chocolate, Marshmallow, Candied Bacon
To keep up with Food = Art events, ‘like’ them on Facebook. Most photos displayed in this post, with the exception of a few, are from the artistic view of Sean Scheidt See more of his images from the event here.