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Save the Ugly Oyster

Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources has proposed new regulations to open more of the Chesapeake Bay to oyster harvesting this fall. These areas were intentionally set aside to protect and increase the Chesapeake’s precious oyster populations. Imagine if it was tree frogs, clown fish or baby seals being overharvested: Public protest would be loud, proud and effective. Just like with those animals, removing existing protections for oysters should evoke an outcry.
    By all counts, today’s Chesapeake Bay oyster populations are at less than one percent of historical populations. There has been no significant rebound, and the oyster fishery is in real jeopardy. Oysters may not be cute, but each one cleans and filters up to 50 gallons of water a day. If we do the math, the impact of a devastated oyster population is startling. The oysters in the Chesapeake could once filter a volume of water equal to that of the entire Bay (about 19 trillion gallons) in one week; today it would take the remaining population more than a year. Oysters are so good at cleaning water that the Chesapeake Bay Program is considering making oyster reefs a best management practice to help heal the Bay.
    But we do not hear an outcry to save the oyster as if it were a clown fish, tree frog or baby seal. Instead, we hear watermen and politicians calling for removing existing oyster protections as a means to short-term economic and political gains. Only 27 percent of Bay oyster beds are currently closed as oyster sanctuaries. No fishery with such a decimated population should be so heavily and recklessly overharvested, particularly one with such capacity for producing clean water.
    I am not the enemy of watermen, trying to deny them access to a fishery. The real enemy is twofold. Our waterways are being polluted by excess nutrients from farms, lawns, industry and urban runoff. However, the biggest culprit is us, the Chesapeake Bay community. Collectively, we have been spectacularly unsuccessful at working together to manage a sustainable fishery. This once-significant fishery could aid the Bay and provide economic benefits to so many. We have dropped the ball on being responsible stewards for a national treasure. As a result, the Bay is severely impaired, and our rivers are among the most polluted in the nation.
    There are many arguments, supported by valid and well-documented research, for reducing the oyster harvest, including implementing a complete harvest moratorium. Opening more of the Bay to additional oyster harvesting is the wrong thing to do. Let’s not reduce protections for our oysters but look to increase them for the benefit of clean water, future generations and ourselves. Let’s save the ugly oyster.

–Jeffrey H. Horstman, Miles-Wye Riverkeeper: Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy