Volume 12, Issue 4 ~ January 22-28, 2004

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Pondering Chesapeake Oysters
by Robert Pfeiffer

If it were a simple up-and-down vote regarding the introduction of the oyster species ariakensis into Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake, I believe that the issue would have been resolved long ago. I am sure that there are many who are frustrated by the delay at arriving at a plan of action; however, the length of deliberation reflects our collective concern. With that said, if you are keeping simple score, then count me as one who supports the introduction of Ariakensis — but with the following caveats:

  • Have we oversold the oyster’s potential in long-term Bay recovery efforts?

To those who have simplified the message about the oyster’s role as a critical filter feeder, we owe a debt of gratitude for getting out the message. However, the message has become so simplified that we run the risk of a dangerous linear thought process: the more oysters the cleaner the Bay. A respected Bay-wide publication recently compounded the confusion by crediting the oyster with filtering sediments.

Let’s make sure we understand that the oyster is a powerful filter feeder that will reduce the phytoplankton population in certain areas of the Bay. What’s more, we need to rebuild this lost potential in these intertidal areas. But other parallel factors will have to be addressed in our efforts to restore the water quality of the watershed. Let us not forget that we must also upgrade sewage treatment plants, reduce runoff and minimize sprawl.

  • Are we in for the long haul?

The American public has a well-documented lack of patience for projects that require generational commitment. We are a society that wants instant and gratifying results. Do the citizens of the Bay understand the length of time required to rebuild oyster populations to a level that will impact the ecological and economic communities of our watershed?

What are the benchmarks that will measure the progress of this new species? What are the goals for the first decade and the subsequent decades as we travel down this new road of oyster restoration? If you review the historic record of oyster landings in Maryland as one benchmark, you need to go back 50 years to witness some level of sustainability. Are we ready to take on a project with a potential 50-year life span?

  • How do we balance the dual role of the oyster in these restoration efforts?

December 2003 marked the 10th anniversary of the Maryland Oyster Roundtable, a deliberative body of watermen, environmentalists, aquaculturists, scientists and regulators who recognized the oyster as an ecological lynchpin to benthic communities in the Bay as well as for its economic value to fishing communities throughout the watershed. If we go down the road of oyster recovery with ariakensis, will we continue to balance these philosophies? Or will we focus on one at the expense of the other?

It troubles me that Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s interest in ariakensis appears to be political as he moves to satisfy a major constituent group. This effort must be above politics.

  • Are we ready for the new reality?

With the Puget Sound as a model, the native oyster will continue to survive in specific areas of the Bay while ariakensis may prove adaptable to other areas. We must rethink the role of aquaculture and the public fishery if we witness the intended increase in survival of oysters in the watershed. We’ll need a new model incorporating thresholds that allow for true increases in reproductive year classes.

Let us not forget that we are interested in pursuing this new species for its purported survivability in the face of two parasites that have decimated our virginica populations.

  • Who will make the calls?

We are starting down a slope — some will call it a slippery one — from which it will be difficult to return. How do the two oyster-producing members of the Bay Program [Maryland and Virginia] work together, given their lack of cooperation on other critical watershed issues in the past? How do we rise above politics on this one?

At the moment, it appears that all parties are working toward an orderly introduction of a new species of oyster to the Bay. How do we prevent the introduction of another rogue species? At what point will we know that we are on a productive course?

Our decision to introduce a new species of oyster is tempered by the frustration of years of efforts to restore oyster populations in the face of parasitic pressures that do not appear to decline. If we go this course, we must do so with our eyes open, with everyone at the table and with the understanding that we are in it for the long haul.

Pfeifer, of Port Republic, spent much of the 1990s working in oyster restoration in Maryland and was executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

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Last updated January 22, 2004 @ 1:07am.