Press Release
July 6, 2010

CBF Report: Bay Oysters Are Getting Tougher Naturally, but Reefs Need Greater Protection for Recovery Sanctuaries Can Boost Wild Oysters, Aquaculture Can Boost Economy

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—A new Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) report released today finds Chesapeake Bay oysters are developing natural resistance to the diseases that have so devastated the Bay's oyster population in recent decades.

To accelerate that natural selection process and the eventual re-population of the Bay with native oysters, the CBF report calls for Virginia and Maryland to create sanctuaries protecting approximately 40 percent of historical oyster grounds, greater funding to rebuild and restore reefs, and stepped-up efforts to prevent oyster poaching from protected reefs. The report also cites growing popularity and profitability of aquaculture, or oyster farming, in the Bay, and urges Virginia and Maryland to encourage aquaculture among watermen through training programs, fee waivers, expedited permit approvals, grants, and other incentives. A surging oyster aquaculture industry could produce millions in new revenue and hundreds of new jobs in the region, the report finds.

"With strong and appropriate management, oysters may well rebound the same as crabs," said CBF President William C. Baker. "Nature seems to be doing its part, and scientists and state policymakers can help by restoring and protecting more historical oyster reefs. Equally important, oyster aquaculture is proving to be a viable and profitable boost to the Bay's oyster industry without depleting the wild oyster population. To paraphrase, we think we can have our oyster and eat it, too."

Maryland has recently proposed changes to its regulation of oyster harvesting. The plan calls for an increase of oyster sanctuaries from nine percent of productive bottom to about 25 percent, and a boost to oyster aquaculture. Those steps are in keeping with scientists' recommendations for oyster restoration, the CBF report found. The public comment period for Maryland's proposed new regulations began on Friday, and the first public hearing is tomorrow.

Research suggests the increased prevalence of oyster diseases in recent decades is actually driving natural selection and hardier oysters, especially in the southern Bay. In Maryland, recently released state data show more oysters surviving diseases. The average annual oyster mortality rate from disease in Maryland fell to 17 percent in the years 2005 through 2009, compared to an average of 29 percent for the years 1985 to 2004. Some of this increased survival could be due to favorable weather conditions.

Disease resistance will increase if oysters are allowed to repopulate on "sanctuary" reefs off-limits to harvesting, scientists say. Currently, many large oysters resistant to disease are harvested. Science suggests about 40 percent of the Bay's historical reef bottom should be sanctuary acres. That could be accomplished by protecting more of the existing productive oyster bottom from harvesting and by rebuilding oyster reefs that once thrived but which now are dead. It also will require Maryland, Virginia and the federal government to increase funding for restoration, to more aggressively police widespread poaching of oysters from sanctuary reefs, and to reduce pollution that impairs oyster reproduction.

The investment could pay off in marked reversals of economic misfortunes, the CBF report found. Over the past 30 years Maryland and Virginia watermen and the seafood industry have lost $4 billion in income with the decline of the oyster population. The number of oyster shucking houses alone has dropped from 136 in 1974 to a half dozen today, with a proportionate loss in jobs in that one branch of the Bay oyster industry.

Helping Maryland watermen supplement their income with oyster farming could bring in tens of millions of additional income, the report found. Oyster aquaculture could also boost jobs and income for processors, restaurants, equipment manufacturers and others.

Virginia is far ahead of Maryland in fostering oyster aquaculture. The number of farmed oysters has jumped ten-fold in just three years in Virginia to nearly ten million, with a market value of $2.8 million, and total economic impact set at about $7 million in 2008. Experts predict that income could increase tenfold in the coming years.

The report also finds watermen in Maryland also would benefit from greater number of oyster sanctuaries through increased fish catches. Oyster reefs that are left alone become rich habitats for numerous species beside oysters. Researchers have calculated that commercial fishermen can earn 34 percent more money over a 50-year time span by catching the fish that feed on a protected oyster reef than by removing the oysters and selling them.

Sanctuaries also are like powerful water filtration plants on the bottom of the Bay. A single adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day, gobbling up algae, and removing dirt and nitrogen pollution. Like forests on land which help clean the air, reefs have been knocked down through years of harvesting. The more reefs are restored the quicker the Bay itself could help counter human pollution.

A full copy of the report can be found at cbf.org/oysterreport.

 

 

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