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Our Neighbors the Oysters

Nowadays they’re the talk of the town

     When you live in Chesapeake Country, oysters are your neighbors.
     You can’t help running into them. Oyster culture is woven into the fabric of our lives. That’s true in both senses of the word. 
     Chesapeake oyster culture rose in response to this precious natural resource, there for the taking in apparently limitless abundance. The culture grew to encompass watermen, boats, harvest tools; buy boats, oyster houses, shuckers, paraphernalia and transport; oyster eaters from the coast to the Midwest and the cuisine and that gilded our Chesapeake lily; cookbooks and histories, art and museums; oyster suppers and oyster competitions for cooks and shuckers. 
      Over the last quarter-century, oyster culture in another sense — as in agriculture and aquaculture — became a common Chesapeake hobby as Marylanders Growing Oysters cage-cultivated baby oysters through their first year, till they were big enough for independent life. Over the last decade, oyster aquaculture for profit has given Maryland a new oyster industry and source of diverse, branded eating oysters.
     Oysters were at Happy Harbor Monday, with shucker Eric Montgomery filling plates for hungry customers. Montgomery moves his operation to Old Stein Inn on Thursday. Also on Thursday, waterman Adam Keller shucks South River oysters on the half-shell at Pirates Cove. Harvest season remains open through March, so this is prime eating season across Chesapeake Country.
      As well as eating oysters and profiting from them, we’re studying them, we being scientists all over the Bay. I’ve been to two seminars with oyster scientists in the last couple of weeks. Mid-February at Historic London Town, Arundel River Federation invited Stan Allen to talk about breeding oysters at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s aquaculture genetics and breeding technology center. Last Saturday, scientists talked about oyster revival at the Anne Arundel Watermen’s Association symposium at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
    Oysters are not only omnipresent neighbors. They’re good neighbors, too. Who among us doesn’t know how our once-thriving oyster community filtered the entire Bay every three days? Or how oyster reefs create underwater cities drawing creatures from far and wide.
      Increasingly, oysters are the neighbors we talk about. 
      Right now what’s being talked about is the just-released draft Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Oyster Management Plan. Every important fishery has a plan to guide the division of the resource. Key to every plan is balancing how many can be harvested with how many need to be saved for the future.
      With oysters, the big and often unstated question is whether, given their tenuous hold on the Bay bottom where they were for so long so abundant, they should be harvested at all. Giving that question urgency are new survey findings that market-sized oysters fell by 50 percent over the last two decades. 
      Over the last decade, oyster planners in the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and its advisors, including the Oyster Advisory Commission, divided oyster habitat in the Bay and its tributaries into safe zones, called sanctuaries, and harvest zones. 
      The current talk of the town is whether those sanctuaries should stand. With fewer oysters to harvest and the increasing competition of farmed oysters, watermen want the right to harvest some in some sanctuary areas. Harvesting, they say, is good for the oyster as well as good for them, because the tonging that brings the oysters up also rakes silt off the oyster beds.
      Setting aside other areas where oysters would be planted like corn, then harvested is another proposal to be debated and decided. As oysters grow more slowly than corn, their rotational cycle would be three years.
      Of course none of this debate is simple or one-sided. Among the countervailing forces to that proposal is a bill, sponsored in the House of Delegates by its powerful speaker Michael Busch, to secure the status of five major sanctuary rivers. 
      Another bill, sponsored in the Senate by Anne Arundel newcomer Sarah Elfreth, would enlarge the pool of oyster decision-makers. Playing a big role has been the Oyster Advisory Commission, whose composition changes with every governor. Nowadays, 12 of the Commission’s 22 members have industry ties. Elfreth says she wants to reduce political persuasion by giving the revision of the draft Oyster Management Plan to a bipartisan working group, complete with a mediator to resolve conflicts.
      Given the stakes — oysters in our Bay — and all the conflicting interests, bringing in a mediator sounds like a good idea. For now, with our oysters the talk of the town, I’m listening and learning. I hope you are, too.
       Hurry to read and comment on the draft plan by March 19: