The Chesapeake Bay defines Maryland geographically, historically and culturally. And for millennia, what defined the Chesapeake Bay were oysters. The shellfish were not only an important food for people -- but, more importantly, they were the ecological cornerstone of the living bay, filtering and cleaning the bay’s waters; providing a home for blue crabs, fish and countless other species; and building reefs that were the necessary foundation for the reproduction of more life.
After the Civil War, however, watermen began ripping the lungs out of the bay by using ships to drag heavy metal rakes with bags across the bottom. By 1891, Maryland’s oyster commissioner, Dr. William K. Brooks, began raising alarms that the bay’s seafood industry was not sustainable.
“Everywhere, in France, in Germany, in England, in Canada, and in all northern coast states [of the United States,] history tells the same story,” Brooks wrote. “In all waters where oysters are found at all, they are usually found in abundance. And in all of these places the residents supposed that their natural beds were inexhaustible until they suddenly found that they were exhausted.”
That was 126 years ago. Brooks, a Harvard-trained zoologist who taught at Johns Hopkins, issued a passionate call for the creation of oyster sanctuaries in the bay – protected zones, where oyster reefs could rebuild themselves.
Unfortunately, he was ignored for more than a century. And by the 1990’s, oyster populations in the bay had plummeted more than 99 percent from their historic levels, with pollution and disease also taking a toll.
In an effort to rebuild the bay’s most important species, federal and state taxpayers invested millions of dollars in programs to plant baby oysters in the bay. But most of these oyster restoration projects in the 1990’s and 2000’s failed, because authorities planted the shellfish in areas that were open to harvesting, and so watermen quickly scooped them out and sold them.
An agreement between Chesapeake region states and EPA in 2000 set a goal of increasing the oyster population in the bay ten-fold by 2010. But because watermen kept dredging up the oysters, the population of oysters actually fell 70 percent over this decade – tumbling to a near-extinction level of one third of one percent of historic levels.
Finally, in 2009, Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration finally listened to William K. Brooks. O’Malley protected 24 percent of the surviving oyster reefs with sanctuaries – about 8,500 acres—and offered watermen low-interest loans to shift to aquaculture.
The strategy worked. Between 2010 and 2014, the estimated number of oysters in the bay more than doubled. Harvests of wild oysters rose four fold, while more than 100 oyster farming businesses opened and flourished.
Watermen increased their dredging for wild oysters and income. But they also complained bitterly to newly-elected Governor Hogan in 2015 that they were still being excluded from a quarter of the oyster bars. And so the Hogan administration last week issued a draft proposal that would open up nearly 1,000 acres of the new oyster sanctuaries to harvest, marking a potential setback in what has been a successful program.
If you care about the Chesapeake Bay – and want to see its keystone species survive – call or write Governor Hogan today and urge him not to cut Maryland’s oyster sanctuaries.