The State of the Bay's Oyster Fishery

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Low tide reveals oysters and reef balls on Virginia's Lafayette River Granby Street reef.

Jackie Shannon/CBF Staff

The Chesapeake Bay's oyster fishery, indeed the Bay's entire oyster population, is a fraction of what it once was. Decades of overharvesting, disease, and pollution have taken their toll, removing not just the oysters but the valuable habitat they created, as well. Moving forward, the fishery needs thoughtful, proactive management combined with aggressive restoration efforts in order to improve.

With wild oyster harvests struggling, a new, growing industry is taking hold and is helping to keep oysters supplied to our restaurants and oyster roasts. Aquaculturists are successfully farming oysters throughout the Bay, providing uniquely branded oysters for a variety of markets. Aquaculture is a proven strategy. Worldwide, nearly all market oysters are farmed. The Chesapeake is one of the few places on the planet where wild oysters are still plucked from the bottom.

In Virginia, sales from farmed oysters are approaching $20 million a year, exceeding that of oysters harvested from the wild. Maryland's aquaculture industry is also heating up. In fact, the Bay's oyster aquaculture industry is growing at about 15 percent a year and represents hundreds of farmers.

The growth in farmed oysters is especially important given the struggles the wild fishery faces. Wild oyster harvests in Maryland were down nearly 45 percent in 2016 and 2017, according to CBF's 2018 State of the Bay report. The state's overall oyster population declined by more than half, from 600 million market-size oysters in 1999 to fewer than 300 million in early 2018, according to a 2018 stock assessment by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The assessment also noted a significant amount of overfishing, which needs to be remedied as soon as possible.

Virginia's total wild oyster harvests have remained stable at around 600,000 bushels for the past several years, partly due to a rotational harvest system. This system reduces pressure on certain harvest bars by only opening them to harvest once every three years. In addition, a state supported replenishment program helps to plant shell on harvest areas, increasing habitat for baby oysters (spat) to attach and grow.

Climate change could pose headwinds for the Bay's oyster population, and by extension to the industry. In 2018, unprecedented rainfall in the Bay watershed limited reproduction of young oysters and increased mortality of adults in some Maryland waters, primarily because of low salinity caused by the increase in freshwater. However, increased nitrogen and phosphorus that fuel oxygen-starved "dead zones", and sediment from polluted runoff that smothers oysters is also of great concern. Scientists also are concerned about acidification—the decrease in pH levels due to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide—of the Bay's waters, especially during the early life stages of oysters. This change in pH makes it more difficult for mollusks and other marine life to form shells.

Fortunately, tributary-scale restoration projects have been successful in Maryland's Harris Creek and Choptank River and in Virginia's Lafayette River. Other similar projects are underway. These will help to restore both the oysters' ecological function and the fishery. Restoring adequate federal funding and increasing the certainty of state funding is key to maintaining this momentum.

In response to these challenges, CBF has partnered with more than 45 oyster farms, conservation groups, business leaders, and others to form the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance. The Alliance's goals are to raise the status of the Chesapeake Bay oyster, increase the pace of restoration, and increase the economic benefits the oyster provides in the Bay region. The partnership has a goal of adding 10 billion oysters to the Bay by 2025 with help from a wide public-private network.

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