Watershed Voice
Summer 2011
Beyond Books

Hope for Bay Oysters and Blue Crabs?

By Emmy Nicklin, CBF Staff

The Little Oyster that Could

Three oyster shells with oyster spat
A DNR study released earlier this year showed higher levels of oyster reproduction and a lower mortality rate for the Chesapeake Bay oyster, reaffirming CBF's extensive restoration efforts.
Photo credit: Tom Pelton/CBF Staff

The Algonquin Indians who gave our Chesapeake its name (meaning "great shellfish Bay"), would be saddened today. Since colonial times, the Chesapeake has lost more than 98 percent of its oysters. Gone are the days when oyster reefs posed navigational hazards to Chesapeake Bay explorers or watermen pulled 17 million bushels of oysters each year. In the past 30 years alone, Maryland and Virginia watermen and the seafood industry have lost $4 billion in income. But as recent studies find, all hope is not lost.

A two-month Maryland Department of Natural Resources survey conducted earlier this year revealed higher levels of oyster reproduction and a lower mortality rate. In fact, Chesapeake Bay oysters seem to be growing heartier and more robust. Given that each adult oyster filters and cleans up to 50 gallons of water per day—gobbling up algae, and removing dirt and nitrogen pollution—that's good news for the health of the Chesapeake Bay and for us.

After a devastating bout with disease in the mid 1980s combined with decades of overharvesting, habitat destruction, and water pollution, the oyster was hanging on by a thread. "That was a turning point really," says CBF Fisheries Director Bill Goldsborough, "because up until then for the previous 100 years, oysters had supported the most valuable fishery in the Chesapeake Bay."

Now, thanks to increased awareness, extensive restoration efforts, and preventing the introduction of a non-native oyster species, there is hope for the mighty oyster yet.

For more information on CBF's oyster restoration efforts, visit cbf.org/oysters.

Beautiful Survivors

Blue crab
Because of restrictions placed on the Bay's blue crab harvest in 2008, this year's dredge survey revealed a total of 460 million crabs in the Bay—the second highest recording since 1997. The results show that for the first time since the early '90s, the crab population has remained at sustainable levels for three straight years.
Photo credit: Damon Fodge

Perhaps the same hopeful future holds true for the Chesapeake Bay blue crab. Also known as "beautiful swimmer," the blue crab is inextricably linked to the oyster. With the drastic decline of the Bay's oysters in the 1980s, watermen focused more and more on the blue crab. A decade later, the fishery neared collapse. Not only was the blue crab itself threatened, but so too were the oyster reefs and underwater grasses that provide it with food, shelter, and oxygen.

It took bi-state restrictions on catching female crabs in 2008 to bring the beautiful swimmers back. The 2010 winter dredge survey conducted at 1,500 random sites throughout the Bay revealed promising news: The number of blue crabs had doubled from the previous year.

This year's dredge survey counted a total of 460 million blue crabs in the Bay—the second highest recording since 1997. Though down from last year (mostly due to weather), the results still show that for the first time since the early 90s, the crab population has remained at sustainable levels for three straight years. That's good news for the blue crab, the Bay, and the people that depend on it. However, Goldsborough still cautions: "We can't declare victory yet. Mother Nature is telling us that even our hardiest Bay critter still needs a helping hand, so we must stay the course."

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