As Maryland prepares to hold a series of public hearings on proposed regulations to more than double the oyster sanctuaries in the Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation released a report documenting how expanded sanctuaries would boost the incomes of watermen who have fought against no-harvesting zones.
The report, On the Brink: Chesapeake’s Native Oysters. What it Will Take to Bring Them Back describes how overharvesting, pollution and other factors have contributed to more than $4 billion in losses for the economies of Maryland and Virginia over the last three decades.
Protecting oysters in sanctuaries provides 34 percent more economic value over a 50 year period than just harvesting the bivalves and selling them, researchers have concluded. This is because protected reefs enhance the reproduction and survival of not only oysters, but also fish that can be harvested and sold, according to the report.
In this sense, regulating oyster harvests more strictly could prove as beneficial to watermen as regulating crab harvests. Two years ago, Maryland and Virginia imposed controversial restrictions on harvesting female blue crabs. The result was a more than doubling in crab populations –- and an increase in blue crab harvests, because there were more crabs available to catch.
In a sense, oysters are even more important than crabs, because oyster are natural clean water machines, with each adult oyster filtering up to 50 gallons of water a day. This filtering also has economic value.
Scientists have estimated that the annual amount of nitrogen pollution removed by oysters in the Choptank River alone (as an example) would otherwise cost over $300,000 a year to remove by waste water treatment systems, according to the new CBF report.
The report was released during press conferences in Maryland and Virginia on July 6. Pictured above is CBF Maryland oyster restoration scientist Stephanie Westby on the Severn River. She is showing reporters a clump of large oysters pulled by divers from a protected, restored oyster reef in the the Severn River. CBF planted two million baby oysters on shells near the Route 50 bridge in the Severn five years ago, and because they were protected from harvest, the oysters have now grown fat and healthy.
“It shows that if you close an area to harvest, and work intensively to restore the oysters, they do survive –- and you can see that in these oysters we’ve pulled out today,” Westby said.
She added that the 9,000 new acres of oyster sanctuaries proposed by Maryland across its portion of the Bay could prove as beneficial as this protected area in the Severn River. But to be successful, the sanctuaries should be combined with projects to plant young oysters and restore the bottom by laying down old shells or concrete as a hard base on which the bivalves could grow.
Here are some other interesting facts from the new CBF report:
• Disease resistance is growing. Some people have despaired about the future of oysters in the Bay because of the diseases MSX and Dermo, which devastated oyster populations in the 1980s. But new research suggests that the high prevalence of the parasites that cause these diseases is breeding tougher oysters through a process of natural selection. In Virginia’s York River, for example, fewer than 5 percent of oysters are dying from MSX today, compared to more than 50 percent a decade ago. In Maryland, recently released state data show that the average oyster mortality rate from disease fell to 17 percent in the years 2005 through 2009, compared to 29 percent in the years 1985 through 2004.
• The expansion of oyster sanctuaries in the Bay is likely to accelerate this natural process of building disease resistance, because the oldest and largest oysters would be protected and allowed to pass on their genes to future generations. Maryland is taking a step in the right direction by proposing regulations that would preserve 9,000 acres of existing oyster reefs, or 25 percent of the total. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation strongly supports these regulations, and is urging both Maryland and Virginia to go even further by protecting and rebuilding 40 percent of the historic reef sites in the Bay. Virginia today has only a few hundred acres of reefs protected by sanctuaries, which is less than 10 percent of the historic sites. But a panel of experts in Virginia has recommended a major expansion.
• The Chesapeake Bay is one of only two places left on Earth where an industry still exists based on harvesting wild oysters. The other is the Gulf of Mexico, which recently has had its oystermen devastated by the BP oil spill. Everywhere else around the globe, from Europe to Asia, underwater farms have replaced wild harvest as the source of most oysters sold in restaurants and markets. And aquaculture is growing fast in the Bay, with the number of oysters produced in Virginia multiplying 10 fold over just three years. Experts project that oyster farming in Maryland could grow to just a handful of businesses today to more than 150 over the next decade, creating $25 million annually in economic impact and 225 jobs.
* The oyster farming industry in Virginia could grow as fast as the clam aquaculture industry in that state, which is now the largest in America, having a total impact on the state's economy of $70 million a year. Dr. Standish K. Allen, professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who contributed to the CBF report, predicts a future in which oysters farms are as dominant in Virginia and Maryland as they are in France and China, with this expansion creating new wealth and jobs in the Chesapeake's working waterfronts. "I think the potential for growth in aquaculture is vast.... If we can make oyster farming profitable -- if people can make a living at it -- that has far more upside than any public program in the Bay."
To read the whole report, click here.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is holding public hearings on its proposal to create 9,000 acres of oyster sanctuaries.
The Annapolis Capital reported on July 8 that only about 30 people turned out for the first hearing, at Anne Arundel Community College on July 7, and that the tone was subdued.
The next hearing is scheduled to be held August 5, 6:00 p.m., Chesapeake College, Todd Performing Arts Center, Route 50 and Route 213, Wye Mills, MD 21679.
Article and photo by Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation