Volume 12, Issue 52 ~ • December 23 - December 29, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

In Bay Restoration, What Comes First - The Oyster or the Jellyfish?
Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

I came upon that question while researching what the Chesapeake, if it were to write a letter to Santa, would request in this season of gift giving. Just what does our Bay have to do with whether the chicken or the egg came first?

Enough that I scrapped the idea of a long list for jolly old St. Nick, figuring instead it would be more appropriate to jump into the old poultry controversy of which came first.

You see, we just might be - pardon the pun - scrambling to decide which should/could/would come first in restoration of the Chesapeake. The question of which should come first is not my idea; I found it in a provocative piece in Chesapeake Quarterly, a publication of the Maryland Sea Grant, which I frequently turn to for the latest on what's going on behind all the hoopla in Bay restoration efforts. Eggs were on the menu.

One paragraph sums it up concisely:

So the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay is back to the chicken and the egg conundrum. Which comes first? Restoration of grasses and oysters? Or improved water quality? Can we help the Bay jump-start its own recovery by replanting oysters and Bay grasses?

It's obvious what this means a-la chicken or egg. Do we first clean up the Bay to embellish an environment for the healthy growth of oysters and Bay grasses, which in turn help clean the Bay? Or do we start with Bay grasses and oysters, depending on them to help us further clean up the Bay? Either way, the bottom line is Chesapeake Bay restoration.

Each passing year, it is obvious how complicated this question is becoming. For the moment, let's not even consider the overwhelming costs involved. Let's look at domino effects. In Chesapeake Quarterly, there is a perfect example.

Good Riddance?
We all gripe about sea nettles; those who wade or swim in the Bay detest them, as do those who have felt their stings whether handling collapsible or rigid crab traps or fishing lines to which a jellyfish clings. If we had our druthers, we'd say Sea nettles, be gone! Good riddance!

But dynamics of the Chesapeake don't work that way. The sea nettle has its role in the Bay, which we didn't realize back in the 1960s when the feds came up with a million bucks a year to help us make the Bay more hospitable for its users via the Jellyfish Control Act. This legislation's goal was "promoting and safeguarding water-based recreation for present and future generations ... by controlling and eliminating jellyfish ... and other pests."

I must admit that at the time I was among those who cheered it on. Like many others, I was oh so naive. But who would have thought those curious looking gelatin-like creatures that packed a powerful sting played an important role in our Bay?

Now we know, and Bay scientists are rooting for the sea nettle.

The plain-old, common and detested jellyfish with its long tentacles spreads across the Bay and its salty tributaries in summer, eating comb jellies and other zooplankton. Without the sea nettle to gobble up the combs, these smaller jellyfishes prey substantially on both young bay anchovies and oyster larvae. They also compete heavily for food with the adult bay anchovy.

The comb jellies - if you're not familiar with them (and I confess I wasn't) - far surpass sea nettles and other stinging jellyfish in numbers in the Chesapeake. They are difficult to see during the day, but in Life in the Chesapeake Bay, Alice Jane Lipson and Robert L. Lipson tell us they're the luminescent things with soft green light we see at night if we disturb the water slightly.

As for the bay anchovies that comb jellies feed upon, they're an important forage dish for many top eating predators such as rockfish, bluefish, sea trout. As Bay menhaden decline in numbers, the anchovy plays a more important role in the diet of our larger gamefish. And all of this gets even more complicated in the interrelationship of creatures of the Chesapeake.

Oyster shells offer a hard surface for sea nettle polyps (the sedentary, bottom-dwelling stage of the species' cycle) to settle on. Without sufficient hard surfaces, they can't complete their reproductive cycle. See what a quagmire we're getting into?

With hard oyster bottoms less available, jellyfish numbers decline. As jellyfish decline, there is less depredation on comb jellies, which means there are more of them to prey on anchovies and oyster larvae. And this is just one little niche in the overall Bay restoration scheme.

Scrambled Eggs on Our Menu
So, where do we go? There are many which comes first scenarios in our Chesapeake. Unless we tackle them promptly, we're going to have an awful lot of egg on our faces.

As Samuel Butler wrote in 1877: A hen is only an egg's way of making another egg.

Methinks that over the years we have scrambled the basic ecology of the Chesapeake in so many ways that it's virtually impossible to know where to start - if we are to do so in keeping with available funding. The cost will be almost beyond comprehension; yet the longer we wait, the more it will cost.

If those who control the purse strings soon don't abandon the patch-patch approach, the whole egg we know as Chesapeake Bay is going to end up something like Humpty Dumpty.

Let it be known that those of us who appreciate the Chesapeake fully realize a hard-boiled approach with all its sacrifices, monetary and otherwise, is in order.

At present, we know our Bay is as fragile as an eggshell. Once the shell is broken ... Well, you know what.

Yes, in Bay restoration we have an awful lot of eggs to fry, but if we keep going as we have been, we're going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. By facing up to the challenge, we just might find our eggs sunny side up.

So for this Christmas, rather than sit back and depend on Santa to do all the giving to the Bay, perhaps it's more appropriate that we take a page from the old Tiwa Indian song. Substitute Chesapeake for Earth and and sing:

O our Mother the Earth, O our Father the Sky,
Your children are we, and with tired backs
We bring you our gifts.

Enough said.

And merry Christmas.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.