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Once-Decimated Chesapeake Bay Oysters Now Reproducing More

OysterBehold! Pearls of good news about Chesapeake Bay oysters! Oyster reproduction and survival in 2010 were better than they have been in 13 years in Maryland, according to numbers from a scientific survey released today by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Despite a history of disease, the percentage of oysters found alive in samples taken from the Bay was 88 percent, the highest level in a quarter century, according to the state figures.  This was more than double the survivorship rate in 2002.

This suggests that oysters may be developing more resistance to the once-devastating diseases MSX and Dermo, state biologists said -– echoing the conclusions of a Chesapeake Bay Foundation report last year.

“Even as our population stood at 1 percent of historic levels, we did not give up... and we now have exciting new evidence that — like our blue crab — our native oyster has not given up either,” said Governor Martin O’Malley.

To be sure, oysters are not yet out of the muck.  Populations remain at a tiny percentage of historic levels.  And sediment pollution, a lack of hard bottom that oysters need to live on, and widespread poaching of oysters from sanctuaries remain significant problems.

But the facts about the increased number of baby oysters this fall, and the rising survival rate of the oysters, come at a good time.  Last year, Maryland launched a new program to expand the size of oyster sanctuaries in the Chesapeake Bay, and encourage oyster farming as an alternative to the dredging up of wild oysters.

Twenty-six state residents have applied for 35 new leases to grow oysters since last fall. And Maryland  has received 27 applications for more than $2 million in available funding for start up and expansion of aquaculture businesses, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

This is a hint that Maryland might be moving in the right direction for a significant expansion of aquaculture, following its neighbor to the south.  In Virginia, the number of oysters sold in aquaculture has expanded by more than 10 fold since 2005, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation report.

But beyond aquaculture, wild oysters also reproduced well in 2010. A study of oysters in Maryland’s part of the Bay, conducted in November and December, included the collection of 399 samples from 260 oyster bars. The survey found about 80 baby oysters (called "spat") per bushel, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.  That was the highest figure since 1997, and about five times the 25 year average of 16 baby oysters per bushel.

A lot more needs to be done -- including increased state law enforcement to stop the routine theft of oysters from sanctuaries, and more government investment to build hard surfaces on the Bay bottom that oysters can use as breeding grounds.

But these recent pearls of good news are a sign that perhaps Chesapeake oysters are finally beginning to turn the corner and start a rally, after a century and a half of serious decline.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

 (Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program)


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