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Last updateMon, 27 Nov 2017 12am

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The amazing oyster needs saving

Oysters go well with just about everything.  You can have them with beer, champagne, and even Coca- cola. They make a fantastic appetizer for a main course or, just as easily, make a fine dinner all by themselves.  I have fond memories of oyster festivals, fried oysters, and oysters on the half shell.  But, the days of abundant oysters are a thing of the past.  If you want them with your dinner, they’re going to cost you, and they probably won’t be the quality of what they were ten or twenty years ago.

But, there is more to the decline in the oyster population than what I like to eat.  These creatures, known as bivalves, are an essential part of our Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem.  Without them, the bay, its tributaries, and a whole host of aquatic species, are at serious risk.  Just how bad is the situation?  It’s bad.  The population is barely one percent of what it was a century ago.  Oysters are completely gone from some areas and are sparse in most others.  

There have been several plans to resuscitate the oyster population.  There was an imaginative program to reintroduce a new breed of oysters that was more resilient to disease and pollution than the native species.  It looked promising.  They were grown in captivity and seemed to be thriving.  Sadly, when released into the Bay, they fell prey to the Bay’s stingray population.

Currently, Virginia and Maryland each have programs to try and rebuild the oyster population.  One of the problems with replenishing the oyster population is the loss of habitat. Destructive fishing techniques which scrap the bottom have destroyed the oyster reefs. To rebuild these (and they are nothing more than old oyster shells) both states have been collecting oyster shells from wherever they can find them to use as the base for the new reefs. Then they’re taking oysters that have been raised in protected environments and depositing them onto the new reefs.

This has been a relatively small undertaking.  Both states want to see how it works, and so far there is strong evidence that this gradualist approach is working.  Where the oysters have been deposited, the oysters have taken hold.  If they’re protected, if these reefs hold up until the oysters begin to establish themselves, then a real re-population is possible.  However, there are several things that need to make sure this is successful.  One is to ban oyster harvesting for as long as five years.  Scientists are in agreement that re-population won’t work unless we stop catching oysters and give the existing population a chance.  This sounds like commonsense, but for some, particularly those who make their living on the Bay, it will go down hard.

Another, longer-term requirement is that we have to make progress on cleaning up the Bay.  Oysters do their part.  One little bivalve can purify as much as 50 gallons of water a day.  However, they’re not indestructible, and high levels of pesticides and nitrates can kill them. If we’re going to bring them back, then we need to at least arrest the deterioration in the quality of the Bay’s ecosystem.  When my grandfather was a boy, the Chesapeake Bay produced 20 million bushels of oysters a year. With proper management, some investment, patience - combined and some good science, maybe it can once again be known for its oysters.  
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