The iconic bivalve has a long way to go before it is recovered, with its populations still a tiny fraction of historic levels.
But the encouraging upward movement in harvest may be a hint that increased oyster plantings in the Bay may finally be making a difference, said Bill Goldsborough, Director of Fisheries for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
These restoration efforts have been helped by expanded oyster sanctuaries, stepped up enforcement against poachers, and dry weather in 2010 and 2012 that created salty conditions favorable to the survival of young oysters, Goldsborough said.
The large number of juvenile oysters (also called ‘spat’) that have spawned in the Bay the last few years is showing up now in both the Bay and the baskets of watermen.
“I think 10 years from now, we’ll look back at the 2010 and 2012 spat set and see that they were the first signs that we’ve been making real progress in our efforts to increase the spawning potential of the Bay’s oysters,” said Goldsborough.
“A shell of a harvest” The Baltimore Sun is calling this year’s numbers.
"Watermen report that they are bringing in two to three times as many oysters as they did last season," the newspaper reports. "Already, it's caused hundreds of people to temporarily join the ranks of the oystermen who dredge the Chesapeake Bay….The total number of people licensed to harvest oysters is now about 800, or twice what it's been in recent years.”
One factor that may be helping oysters in the Bay is increased plantings of the bivalves. A record 647 million oysters were planted in the Bay in 2009 by the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a coalition of government agencies and advocacy groups (including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation) working in collaboration with the University of Maryland. The number planted by the partnership was up from 76 million oysters in 2004, and 191 million oysters in 2005, according to the partership’s website.
Most of these oysters have been planted in sanctuaries where they cannot be harvested, and where they will reproduce and help repopulate surrounding areas, potentially including areas open to harvest. The increased harvest of oysters this year likely came from these areas open to harvest, Goldsborough said.
The increased harvest this year was not caused by any loosening of restrictions – because no such opening up has happened, Goldsbourgh added. In fact, Maryland in 2010 more than doubled the amount of the Bay’s remaining oyster bars protected by no-harvesting zones, boosting these sanctuaries to 25 percent of reefs.
The increased harvest in 2012 appears to have come not from these no-harvesting zones, but from the unusually strong survival and reproduction of young oysters in the wild, which was helped by dry weather conditions.
“They spawn better and grow better when the salinity is up,” Goldsborough said.
2011 was a wet year, which normally would have been bad for oyster survival. But despite this heavy rainfall and storms last year, many of the young oysters (except some in the extreme northern sections of the Bay) survived the tropical storms and influx of muddy fresh water from those rain storms.
That is encouraging news, Goldsborough said.
To learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s oyster restoration efforts, click here.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo from Chesapeake Bay Program)