Volume 12, Issue 19 ~ May 6-12, 2004
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Shell of a Problem: A Hobson’s Choice for Beleaguered Oysters
That crossroads you’re always hearing about: We’ve passed it — and we turned on the road not taken.

Last week, Maryland lowered Asian ariakensis oysters in Bay waters as part of a two-year experiment to learn whether they might be a feasible replacement for our native virginica oysters.

Heavy plastic cages containing both varieties have been floated in the Severn, Patuxent and Choptank rivers, among other Maryland waters. In moving ariakensis out of the lab and into living Bay waters, we’re following experiments already underway in Virginia.

The aim is to see if these foreign oysters flourish. Can they withstand Dermo and MSX, the diseases that have obliterated Chesapeake oyster beds in recent years? Will other unimagined perils assault them? Might they themselves become a peril?

This is a test, and in such uncharted waters, anything can happen. Off in North Carolina waters last December, a rogue protozoan of the genus Bonamia killed off a test batch of related ariakensis oysters.

“It just shows that nature always throws you surprises,” said the scientist who’d reviewed Chesapeake Bay ariakensis experiments for the National Academies of Science.

Not only nature but also alien species are famous for surprises. We don’t need to look very far to remember some of those surprises, as that troublesome northern snakehead has reared its ugly head again this spring. On the beach and in the marsh, phragmites are rising. Covering tree, house and barn, the brown tangled vines of kudzu are greening with the spring. English starlings are scrambing at the bird feeder.

What isn’t thriving in Chesapeake Country is our native oyster, and reaching a deadend on that well-traveled road is what’s turned us onto this new one.

In the six-month oystering season that ended last month, the Maryland harvest was lower than ever before in history: a mere 17,000 bushels.

Here’s some perspective: A year ago, the harvest was 53,000 bushels — and that was a record low. Four years ago, Maryland watermen brought in 347,000 bushels, and that was a near low at that time.

So, under pressure from watermen and the seafood industry, our decision-makers are proceeding with these experiments.

We think of the road we’ve now chosen as a Hobson’s choice, which is a figurative way of saying no choice.

Make that virtually no choice. One alternative still untried is factoring the collapse of oysters in every discussion about every construction permit for every variance request along the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

Perhaps we should print posters that read “Just 17,000 Bushels” and put them at every state and local office where developers continue to win permits for subdivisions along the Bay.

As for the road, we’ve taken: Dropping those cages in the water is more than just an experiment. It is a potentially fateful turning.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated May 5, 2004 @ 11:30am.