Vol. 11, No. 2

January 9-15, 2003

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Oyster Wipe-Out: Canary in the Coal Mine?

In this issue of Bay Weekly, we devote our feature to the tragedy of oysters in Chesapeake Bay.

Often, it seems that we are bombarded with bad-news stories about the environment, over-development and declining species. And these days, with so many troubles in the world, our meters for measuring risk are sometimes out of whack.

But what is happening to Chesapeake Bay oysters is not just another tale of environmental woe. The collapse of this time-honored industry is a blow to all of us who revere our cultural heritage and a new distress signal that would be foolish indeed to ignore.

As our feature story describes, devilish microscopic organisms have all but destroyed Maryland’s oyster industry. We thought it was bad last year with a harvest of just 148,155 bushels. That’s a tiny fraction of what Chesapeake Bay produced a century ago. It’s less than half even of the harvest in 2000 and 2001.

This year? Probably less than 50,000 bushels will be harvested, predicts Chris Judy, the oyster expert in Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

As long ago as the late 19th century, overharvesting was blamed for robbing the Bay of perhaps its greatest natural treasure. Keep in mind that oysters aren’t just valuable to eat; the hard-working bivalve continually flushes the water in the Bay, keeping it healthy for humans and other aquatic life.

But, says Judy, the culprits have been dermo and MSX, diseases that are at their destructive best in salty water. Last year, drought kept salinities at sky-high levels, enabling the invasive microorganisms to thrive.

The problem illustrates how, in our unbalanced Bay, one factor can have terrible consequences.

Back when there was balance, oysters and the Bay thrived. Now, a host of conditions — all related to human encroachment — have knocked the Bay so badly out of balance that any one factor — manmade or natural — can devastate or even destroy a resource.

That terrible vulnerability is on our minds as the General Assembly begins a new session that, new House Speaker Michael Busch tells Bay Weekly, will be devoted primarily to the budget. (Read our Bay Weekly interview with Busch next week.)

Even as Robert Ehrlich is sworn in as governor next week, the public comment period will close for the most comprehensive report ever on our native oyster. We can report that the 88-page document, produced by the Chesapeake Bay Program, does not give up hope.

It includes several remedies, but each is costly. They include building more oyster reefs and seeding them with stock that has proved to be disease resistant. The report also recommends more research and better coordination in the diverse lot of studies and rescue efforts now underway.

Economic downturns aren’t permanent, but the collapse of a fishery is. If our General Assembly doesn’t find money for oyster programs this year, and lots of it, we might as well give up hope for our native, Eastern oyster.

Our only recourse then might be to proceed with the risky proposition of planting ariakensis, that Asian oyster in the wings, which seems to have virtues of the Eastern oyster plus one it lacks — resistance to dermo and MSX.

The state of Chesapeake Bay oysters can’t get much worse.

Unless it gets better, the next time someone in our family asks, “How about a delicious fried oyster sandwich?” the answer will be, “Sorry, too late.”

Copyright 2003
Bay Weekly