The State of Today's Oyster Fishery

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The oyster fishery reached its height in the late nineteenth century, but unrestrained harvest destroyed the tall reefs that had accumulated over millennia, while pollution and disease drove the stock further down. Fifty years ago, the catch still ranked third among all commercial harvest in the Chesapeake, but it crashed in the 1990s and ‘00s. On the bright side, the harvests have bounced back modestly, exceeding one million bushels total in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. Virginia’s private harvest, including aquaculture, is growing strongly, but Maryland’s is lagging, and both public (wild) harvests vary but remain much smaller than they were as recently as the 1970s. Today the two-state harvest has risen back to fourth place in the Bay’s fisheries, but the current harvest is still less than five percent of what it was before 1850, and the Bay’s ecological need for this filter feeder demands major restoration.

As with menhaden, there is now a growing realization that oysters provide much more than seafood. They filter the Bay’s water by grazing algae, while their shells build reefs that offer important habitat in much the same way that corals do in warmer waters. The nooks and crannies of these reefs provide spaces for communities of small worms, crustaceans, mud crabs, fish, and other invertebrate animals that form the bases for many of the Chesapeake’s deep-water food webs. Scientists refer to these reefs as keystone communities, critical components in a healthy Bay. The degradation of the reefs by dredging them flat over the past century and a half has played an important role in their decline.

Finally, though, there is some better oyster news emerging. Good spat sets (baby oysters attaching to shells of more mature oysters) in 2010, 2012, and 2015 are part of the story, but good survival of those oysters is even bigger news. Heightened mortality from disease has hurt the Bay’s oysters since the 1960s, but there is growing evidence that the survivors are developing genetic disease tolerance and passing it on to their offspring, at least in certain parts of the Bay.

Oyster reef restoration programs have ramped up in recent years and appear to be boosting the population, while exporting spat (baby oysters) to waters open for harvest. State and federal efforts are focusing on creating healthy reef systems in target tributaries, an enlightened strategy that should be continued. At present, those target tributaries include the Lafayette, Lynnhaven, Piankatank, Great Wicomico, and lower York Rivers in Virginia. In Maryland, the targeted tributaries are the Choptank (specifically Harris Creek and the Tred Avon River), the Little Choptank, and the Potomac (specifically the upper St. Mary’s River and Breton Bay).

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Podcasts

  • The Snowball Effect

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